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Ari Fleischer Defends President-elect Bush's Cabinet Picks

Aired January 11, 2001 - 2:03 p.m. ET


NATALIE ALLEN, CNN ANCHOR: We're waiting for Bush press secretary Ari Fleischer to begin speaking any moment. And we will hear from the president-elect himself. Later this hour, you will see both events live here on CNN TODAY.

This is another day of hiring for the new boss. Sources say Bush will tap Robert Zoellick, a veteran of the Reagan and first Bush administrations, as U.S. trade representative. It's possible, but uncertain, whether Bush will name a new Labor nominee to replace Linda Chavez. The Bush team is also working today on a pair of lightning- rod nominees.

Conservative women rallied around the attorney general-designate John Ashcroft. And Gale Norton, the woman Bush wants to run the Interior Department, is under fire today over comments she made four years ago. Confirmation hearings for Donald Rumsfeld's second tour of duty at the Pentagon are resuming this hour. Unlike Ashcroft and Norton, his confirmation is considered a sure bet inside the Beltway.

LOU WATERS, CNN ANCHOR: First, let's talk a little bit more about John Ashcroft. Groups on the left say he's too far on the right. They're vigorously targeting this nomination.

CNN's national correspondent Bob Franken is keeping watch on it from Washington -- Bob.

BOB FRANKEN, CNN NATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: And, although, Lou, the people who are the supporters of John Ashcroft believe now that they're in the driver's seat, that he's going to be able to weather this storm from the left, they are taking no chances. Not only are the Republicans on Capitol Hill working very hard to make sure they lose none of their members as they try and pick up some Democrats also, the conservative groups -- the wide rage of them -- are holding meetings.

And they're putting together a very, very, very intense campaign. As Natalie pointed out a moment ago, the conservative women's organizations -- a large number of them -- gathered to counter the representations the other day from the people on the liberal side of the special-interests groups. They said that all that was going on is that, not that John Ashcroft was underqualified, but that the liberals had some real problems with his ideology.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP) BEVERLY LAHAYE, CONCERNED WOMEN FOR AMERICA: Senator John Ashcroft has a bullseye drawn on him by liberal political groups whose heat-seeking missiles are not only directed at him, but at others who hold beliefs different than their own.


FRANKEN: Ashcroft, of course, is campaigning hard for his job, just as he did during the election campaign -- which you are seeing right there, the election campaign that was unsuccessful. It's considered quite probable that he is still going to be able to survive in the Senate. But the liberal interest groups are saying: Wait until the hearings commence.

There are going to be at least three days of hearing led by the Democrats. One of those days will include an appearance by Ronnie White, who is the Missouri Supreme Court judge who is an African- American. Civil-rights groups say that Ashcroft's adamant opposition to his becoming a federal judge proved that he has the willingness, at least, to play racial politics. It's going to be a brutal hearing next week. But it looks now like Ashcroft is going to, in fact, weather the storm. Conservative groups are trying to make sure of that possibility -- Lou.

WATERS: Bob, how about this dust-up over opposition research handed over by the Carnahan campaign to the liberal-activist groups? Is that likely to factor into this? Is this going to be a federal case?

FRANKEN: Well, let me just say this. You remember "Casablanca," when he said, "I'm shocked, shocked"?


FRANKEN: Ari Fleischer was doing his imitation yesterday. And that's how it's looked at in Washington.

WATERS: He certainly was -- Bob Franken in Washington.

We are expecting to hear from Ari Fleischer at any time now. And when that happens, we will bring a bit of that to you live -- Natalie.

ALLEN: Interior secretary-designate Gale Norton is drawing jeers today over remarks she made in 1996. While speaking to a conservative group in Denver, Norton compared her struggle to keep power in the states to that of the old Confederacy. Norton was Colorado attorney general at the time and fierce opponent of affirmative action.

Quoting her: "We certainly had bad facts in that case, where we were defending state sovereignty by defending slavery. But we lost too much. We lost the idea that the states were to stand against the federal government gaining too much power over our lives." Some groups say the remarks lack sensitivity to African-Americans and the horrors of slavery. A Bush spokeswoman calls that -- quote -- "a stretch." Defense nominee Donald Rumsfeld took the Bush team's ambitious military agenda to Capitol Hill today, as he faced confirmation hearings to be the boss at the Pentagon. Rumsfeld pledged to move forward on an elaborate and costly missile-defense system. And he said modernization of hardware and troop morale would be top priorities during his tenure.

CNN's Carl Rochelle joins us from Washington.

Carl, no one's really sure a missile-defense shield will even work, are they?

CARL ROCHELLE, CNN CORRESPONDENT: No. And they haven't been, Natalie. This has been one of the outstanding questions since the days of Ronald Reagan, when he sort of mentioned an umbrella protecting the United States. It was -- picked up the name Star Wars. And it's been a bone of contention ever since then. It's been up and down. It looks like it might come back up in this particular administration.

Mr. Rumsfeld is a supporter of that. He's a believer in it. It appears that George Bush is a supporter and believer in it. And many Republicans are. And one of the reasons that he wants to have this done, he says, is not only for the protection that it might give, but also for the deterrence factor. And, as an example, he gave Operation Desert Storm, when U.S. and coalition forces faced the forces of Saddam Hussein.


DONALD RUMSFELD, DEFENSE SECRETARY NOMINEE: If Saddam Hussein, the week before he invaded Kuwait, had demonstrated that he had a ballistic missile and a nuclear weapon, the task of trying to put together that coalition would have been impossible. There's no way you could have persuaded the European countries that they should put themselves at risk to a nuclear weapon.


ROCHELLE: It was smooth sailing for Mr. Rumsfeld, as he went forward for the confirmation hearing that would make him the second person -- or the second -- the only person to have served twice as secretary of defense: different administrations, different times. He was the youngest secretary of defense ever to serve. And he will apparently be the oldest secretary of defense to serve -- Lou.

WATERS: OK, Carl, we are going to head over now to the transition office in Washington, where Ari Fleischer is taking questions from reporters about the transition and other matters. Let's listen.


ARI FLEISCHER, W.H. PRESS SECRETARY-DESIGNATE: ... whose agenda is not accuracy, but distortion. And that's unfortunate. That's part of the process that needs to change. QUESTION: Ari, does it look like it will be harder for the president-elect to meet his pledge of becoming a uniter in Washington? What can he do to...

FLEISCHER: No, I think just the contrary. Take this morning's education meeting. That was a diverse group of people coming from many different backgrounds. They talked to the president-elect about one agenda item that probably has more -- that the American people care about more than any other agenda item, and that is improving education in this country.

And when you look at the comments that were made, I think you heard the president-elect himself say that what he's interested in are things that work and results regardless of whether it's Democratic or Republican, and that's the type of spirit he's going to bring. So we're very encouraged by that.

Listen, we understand there are always going to be people who fall outside the partisan mainstream. That is their right and they can do that. President-elect Bush is going to seek to be president for all the people, and he's going to have an agenda involving education, getting prescription drugs to seniors, providing tax relief, rebuilding the military, that's aimed at that type of unity government.


QUESTION: Does the president-elect intend to stay at the ranch through the weekend until Monday?

FLEISCHER: I don't have the exact details on his schedule, but given the fact that he no longer has his home in Austin, I think that's likely, but I want to be precise, so...

QUESTION: Anything new about Monday or Tuesday or Wednesday of next week?

FLEISCHER: I intend to have a read tomorrow on his schedule for next week. And then I'm going to try to get next week into some more events vis-a-vis the inauguration and the themes that the president- elect is going to speak to. So that will probably happen on next week's schedule that I'm going to try to do tomorrow.

QUESTION: Is Wednesday the day that the president is coming?

FLEISCHER: That's what I want to kind of get into tomorrow. I'm going to try to walk you through the whole schedule about what he's going to do and run up to the inaugural.

QUESTION: But do you have it firmed up at this point? Or is it still opened to some...

FLEISCHER: Well, the reason I always like to wait, I want to make sure it's precise and so there could be some moving parts and I don't have them all in front of me anyway. As soon as it's available, I'll give it out tomorrow. QUESTION: Do you think he's planning to meet more and more different types of groups for unity in the coming days or weeks?

FLEISCHER: Well, he continues to do that. That's part of governing, part of what president's do. So he will continue.

QUESTION: I've got a housekeeping question. For those of us who didn't bother to apply for inaugural credentials -- it's going to be such chaos next week -- are we going to be even able to get into this section of town with the Bush credentials? Or so, could you look into it?

FLEISCHER: I thought you were looking to me for credentials.

QUESTION: No. No. No. I mean, hopefully we don't have to come in. But if we do?

FLEISCHER: That's all being handled by the inaugural committee. And so I really don't know how that's going to work. I would refer you to inaugural.

QUESTION: Security is going to be so tight that maybe even those with the White House credentials might not...

FLEISCHER: I'll be happy to vouch that none of you in this room are security risks, so far.

QUESTION: About the Norton speech, is there any feeling by the president-elect or by people in the Bush-Cheney transition that there was anything wrong with what she said?

FLEISCHER: The president-elect saw the story this morning. He thought that this was -- just as I indicated -- the usual Washington distortions.

He appointed Secretary Norton-designate for a good reason, because of her strong record on the environment, on public lands issues in the West, on land issues in the West. And he believes she'll make an outstanding secretary of the interior.

You know, she has a 20-year record in the state of Colorado on environmental issues, on federal land issues. She has a track record of bringing people together from a variety of sides of contentious issues. I don't need to remind anybody how difficult land issues are -- water issues are out West.

And she is known in Colorado -- I would refer you to today's Denver Post editorial -- for bringing people together and for doing a good and able job.

QUESTION: My question really is: Was there anything wrong with that -- with what was said in that specific speech?

FLEISCHER: I think the point that she was making is that slavery is so wrong, so wrong that whatever argument or doctrine that is used to defend it is going to become tainted. That is the point she as making in that speech. And I think that no one has made any accusations beyond that.

QUESTION: Ari, you talked about the diverse group this morning, but I noticed that there were no members of the teachers' unions who backed Al Gore. Are they going to be shut out from education talks?

FLEISCHER: No one will be shut out. But I think we're allowed the right to have meetings that constantly involve different groups of people, and that's what we intend to do. But there was a healthy smattering of people from a variety of backgrounds there.

And, certainly, I think one of the big changes -- and I talked about this a couple weeks ago -- that people in education are looking for -- what the person sitting at the president-elect's right, I think, Ed Rust -- is the chairman of the Business Roundtable's Education Committee.

I mean, to get the business community involved in education is a powerful step forward in America. No less a person than Charlie Rangel on the House Ways and Means Committee is an advocate of doing that.

Phyllis Hunter, sitting on his left, a former schoolteacher, now has a big reading initiative program in the state of Texas.

That's where we're going to keep bringing people together, and we're going to keep having different forums. Nobody will be shut out.

QUESTION: (OFF-MIKE) of the president there this morning.

FLEISCHER: I think that's a testament to how powerful his ideas are.



QUESTION: On the education bill that he'll introduce, do you see it being a comprehensive package of reforms that includes a voucher initiative?

FLEISCHER: It'll be what he ran on, and what he ran on was a school choice initiative -- some people call it vouchers. It really is technically a school-choice initiative because it only applies to those Title I schools that after three years who fail to live up to standards, and therefore the children do not get good educations at those schools.

Only after three years do the children in those schools and the families in those schools have the right to financial support in the form of school choice that they could use to go to another school of their volition. So that, technically, is a different definition.

But, no, it's going to be what he ran on.

QUESTION: The whole thing together as one...


FLEISCHER: A comprehensive package.

QUESTION: Is he working with any of the committee leaders to put this into legislative form? When I say he, I mean, you know, the transition team.

FLEISCHER: Yes, the policy coordination group. You know, I haven't asked them to tell me everybody you're talking to in putting it together. I can only imagine that is they are (INAUDIBLE) of process.

But let me say that he will propose and then work very closely with the Congress, but he is going to want to have a proposal that resembles that which he campaigned on. I haven't asked Margaret to give me the list of everybody she's talking to, though.

QUESTION: Well, when President Clinton came in, they didn't consult with the committees on the health care initiative, and it came crashing down. I wonder if he sees the perils of not working closely with the committees that actually pass the legislation.

FLEISCHER: Well, in fairness to President Clinton, and at that time, I think their 1993 initiative was of a wholly different order. And I really can't say you can compare the two.

It's always an interactive process for the executive, no matter what party to work with the legislature in developing policy, you consult, you listen to, you put your policies together. We have a congressional affairs team that's up on the Hill. We hear from Leader Lott, from Speaker Gingrich -- Speaker Hastert -- I'm dating myself...


FLEISCHER: ... and listen to the advice that they have and then send our packages up to the Hill.

WATERS: We are going to interrupt Ari Fleischer for just a second here to confirm what you seeing on your screen there about the final choice for a Cabinet position for the George W. Bush administration, in light of the withdrawal of Linda Chavez from the post -- or the nominated post of labor secretary in the new administration.

CNN has learned Elaine Chao -- who is chairman of Asian Studies Center -- has been chosen. Ms. Chao's career includes director of the Peace Corps. She was former president, chief executive officer of United Way of America. She has also served as deputy secretary of the U.S. Department of Transportation, chairman of the Federal Maritime Commission, and vice president of Bank America Capital Markets Group in San Francisco. She holds an MBA from Harvard Business School and an undergraduate degree in economics from Mount Holyoke College -- Elaine Chao, president-elect George W. Bush's choice to be labor secretary.

We'll hear more about this in the next few minutes. Let's rejoin Ari Fleischer's meeting with Washington reporters.

FLEISCHER: ... fully confident that the United States Senate, in a bipartisan fashion, is going to vote in favor of Secretary-designate Ashcroft's position -- confirmation.

QUESTION: Even though he's so pro-life -- even though he's so anti-abortion and he would have to be supporting abortion laws?

FLEISCHER: Well, again, you have people who are even so one position or other on the liberal side who have always been appointed, and I think it would be a sad day for the country if the traditions in the Senate changed this year and the bar of bipartisanship was brought even lower that now presidents don't get the latitude in appointing the people who support their governing agenda to the Cabinet.

QUESTION: Is the president-elect concerned that, through the work of both parties, the Ashcroft confirmation hearing is shaping up to be a real spectacle?

FLEISCHER: I think it's not something that he can control. People have questions they want to ask, and we expect the Senate will be very respectful and that is the hearing process.

QUESTION: But did he not anticipate this kind of thing when he named Ashcroft? Or is he concerned that it in some way threatens the spirit of cooperation that he hopes reigns?

FLEISCHER: I think it's always hard to anticipate how partisan Washington will get. I think it all depends; sometimes it is, sometimes it's not.

What we hope is that people don't go too far in their partisanship, that people are afforded a fair hearing and a balanced hearing, and all indications we have so far is he will have a fair hearing and a balanced hearing. So in that sense the Senate is following its honored prerogatives.

I just find what I think is more troubling is a lot of the liberal special interest groups that are trying to put pressure on senators to vote a certain way. You had senators who took one stand, and then as the pressure mounts, they might have shift their stands.

We hope that everybody will have a fair hearing and a just hearing, and the indications we have from the Senate are that they will.

QUESTION: Is there no pressure being exerted on Republicans?

FLEISCHER: Well, I think that most Republicans, virtually everybody I've heard of, I heard Leader Lott say yesterday that he thinks all senators are with Senator Ashcroft. They've known him for so long. They've served with him. They know him. They think he's a man of integrity, of character, of trust. So I think for those senators it's a natural.

Yes, sir? QUESTION: Let me ask it another way then. Is the president- elect surprised that the Ashcroft nomination has created such a stir, or whatever label you want to put on it?

FLEISCHER: I'd be hard pressed to say that he's surprised. I think he understands how Washington can get sometimes. It's one of the reasons he wants to change the tone in Washington.

QUESTION: Wouldn't you say that it's good for you?


FLEISCHER: I'm sorry?

QUESTION: Wouldn't you say that it's good for you, energizing your conservative base? And it allows some people to deplore the partisanship.

FLEISCHER: No. I think one of the things that President-elect Bush is going to do when he comes here and is sworn in is, not look at things with the usual prism that Washington looks at things -- is it good for me, is it good for the other guys, will this help gin up the base, will this help somebody raise money.

He said that one of the lessons of this election, the close election that we've had, is that people need to put the national interest ahead of the partisan interest. And he's going to endeavor to contribute to that in the things he does and says, and we hope that others will follow.

And I think we also -- also, it's going to take time. He can't just come here overnight and change Washington. That is never going to happen. But he will endeavor to do so over the course of time.

QUESTION: You'll make sure, won't you, that there are others on the staff who do that for him.

FLEISCHER: Any names you'd like to mention?

QUESTION: Ari, thinking about what you said there about it being in the national interest, how, then, is putting forward the name of a nominee who causes such deep divisions between people of different political ideology in the nation's interest? How, then, is putting forward the name of a nominee, who causes such deep divisions between people in different political ideology in the nation's interest?

FLEISCHER: Well, I just have to point out he has served in the Senate so ably all these many years, and you never heard these notes. These notes all seem to be sounded after liberal special interest groups chinned-up to start a fight.

And I refer you to Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan, a very well- respected Democrat, former senator, who has talked about what an outstanding attorney general he would be.

QUESTION: There are also people that perceive being one of 100 as one thing, being one of one as quite another.

FLEISCHER: But, again, I don't think you have seen these reflections. If Senator Ashcroft was indeed the things that his opponents have said about him, you'd think we may have heard it by now.

And all of a sudden these are new creations that come in the heat of a confirmation battle as people seek, for ideological grounds, to derail a president's latitude in putting his people in place in his Cabinet to carry out the president-elect's agenda.

QUESTION: (OFF-MIKE) he lost to Carnahan, who was actually dead. I mean, these issues are not new.

FLEISCHER: But people run for reelection, and that's the course of campaigns. But I think people who serve with him in the Senate did not engage in those allegations that were made in the heat of a political campaign by groups within a state.

QUESTION: Ari, many groups are opposing and planning to demonstrate against his nomination. If confirmed, how do you think he will deal with his opponents?

FLEISCHER: In the same graceful, able manner he always has. And he will continue, as the president-elect does, to bring people together. And we hope that those oppose him will, after he's confirmed, join with us in helping bring the people together.

QUESTION: Would you encourage Senator Ashcroft to release the text of his commencement address to Bob Jones University just to clear the air on that point?

FLEISCHER: I'm not in the business of advising him. He's got a panel of people working with him on that. And so that's all I can do.

QUESTION: Can you tell us about any themes that he'll address in his inaugural speech that might be significant to this whole discussion? I mean, President George Bush talked about kinder and gentler.

FLEISCHER: What I'd like to do on that is I'm still getting my arms around that, and then I'm going to have more to say about it next week. And that's, again, why I want to indicate that I plan to and ensure with you all the information about where he is going, themes, et cetera, the departure from Texas, the arrival to Washington.

He'll be here for several days, of course, prior to the 20th. There will be events on those days. And so I want to let everybody know black tie and boots, of course, for those of us Texans in the room.


QUESTION: A central theme in the Bush campaign was restoring honor and dignity to the White House, and appointing an attorney general who would enforce the law regardless of politics. Will Bush ask Louis Freeh to investigate whether Linda Chavez misled or lied to the FBI? And if she did, will his attorney general prosecute her?

FLEISCHER: I think it's always at the discretion of the FBI to make any assessments about any misconduct if it was committed, and I'm not aware that any investigations are warranted. I have no reason to think there are.

QUESTION: Ari, there's some potentially precedent-setting trade agreements being negotiated, apparently very aggressively by the Clinton administration with Singapore and Chile. I'm wondering if the president-elect would feel bound by what the Clinton administration might negotiate with regard to those treaties.

FLEISCHER: That will fall into the category of not speculating about -- not discussing foreign policy while we have the president- elect in office. Let's see what happens with these trade agreements. There still is nine days to go.

I think I have time for about one or two more. I hate to do that today, but it's unusual day.

QUESTION: Has the vice president-elect concluded his financial separation from the Halliburton company?

FLEISCHER: I don't have that information.


QUESTION: Given the energy-crisis situation in California, and the president-elect's experience with deregulating the Texas markets, do you anticipate that the president-elect will continue the push for opening electricity markets to competition?

FLEISCHER: Indeed he would. That is part of his national energy policy. He has shown that deregulation can and does work. That's what happened in Texas. That is the experience in Texas.

And I do have to go. I think this is a good sign that the president-elect may be in the building.

Thank you, everybody.

WATERS: All right, Ari Fleischer. As he mentioned, the president-elect, George W. Bush, expected to make an announcement shortly. And we expect it will be the same news that we just passed along to you during Ari Fleischer's gentle sparring with the Washington press corps over the most controversial of George W. Bush's selection for his Cabinet, Gale Norton and John Ashcroft, to be specific.

Elaine Chao, we have learned, has been chosen to head the Department of Labor, should she be confirmed. She is the wife of Senator Mitch McConnell, who is a Republican senator from Kentucky. Ms. Chao herself has considerable government experience. She was the former president and chief executive officer of United Way of America, to boot. Ari Fleischer, incidentally, will be the guest on "CROSSFIRE" tonight on CNN. That's "CROSSFIRE" tonight at 7:30 Eastern. And coming up this hour, as I mentioned: president-elect Bush expected to make that announcement of Ms. Chao at 2:45. When he does that, we'll bring that to you live. We'll take a break. We'll be right back.



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