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White House Press Secretary Ari Fleischer Holds Daily Briefing

Aired January 24, 2001 - 2:52 p.m. ET


LOU WATERS, CNN ANCHOR: Now we're going to check in at the White House. Here's the White House press secretary, Ari Fleischer.


ARI FLEISCHER, WHITE HOUSE PRESS SECRETARY: ... introductory in nature and underscore the strong relations the United States has with these nations.

Two, I want to note and commend the United States Senate Energy Committee, they voted this morning 18 to two to confirm Designate Norton for the post of secretary of the interior. Also, the Senate passed, by 100 to nothing, the nomination of Governor Thompson of Wisconsin to be secretary of HHS.

We're very pleased by these bipartisan showings. I think it's a good sign of how much early strength there has been for the president's nominees. We've had remarkably strong progress early on in this administration for our Cabinet nominees.

I want to do one housekeeping item that I hope you all find helpful. In an effort to service you, you've got a division of labor among our deputies. And let me just quickly go over what their job responsibilities will be. And this means they'll be your principal contact on questions on these topics. They also will be working directly as the liaison to the agencies on these issues.

Deputy Scott McClellan, who you all know from the campaign, Scott will be handling faith-based initiatives, drug policy, Education, Health and Human Services, HUD, Interior, Justice, Labor, EPA, the FEC and Immigration and Naturalization.

QUESTION: Is that all?



FLEISCHER: We all report to Gordon.

QUESTION: What do you do?


FLEISCHER: I go home at 2:00. Come back for the briefing. Go home again.

QUESTION: Are you kidding? Is that...

FLEISCHER: That's Scott's. Claire Buchan (ph), Deputy Claire (ph). Claire (ph) will handle Agriculture, Commerce, Energy, Management and Budget, Transportation, Treasury, USTR, where she is the former spokeswoman, Treasury, where she is the former deputy assistant secretary of public affairs, the FCC and Air and Space.

And Mary Ellen Countryman, who you all know. She will handle CIA, Defense, State, foreign affairs. And we're working through the assistant press secretaries, there will be some divisions there. We're going to have some further announcements on that.

On the assistant press secretary level, of course, Gordon, you all know. Gordon handles a lot of the logistics, the nuts and bolts of the pooling questions. There will be other duties.

A lot of the booking. It all goes to Jennifer Millerwise for the television requests.

And Anne Womack, at this point, will be additional duties to be announced. But what I'm noticing, we have a lot of internal White House requests about how does this work inside the White House or that work inside the White House? I'd like for you to address those to Anne.

And my hope is by doing this, you'll have a one point of contact and that way, please take your request to one person. If you, you know, call it to two, it's going to come right back to the one. And I just hope it'll make it easier for you all and certainly help us with a liaison to the agencies.

FLEISCHER: Final item: I'd like to congratulate the press corps. The flak jacket has been returned. I believe we owe it to you for your reporting. You brought it to the attention of the -- I can only assume was an irrationally exuberant cleaner over the weekend.

But I do want to tell you one thing I did not realize; it's not just the note from the predecessor to me. There is what appears to me at least to be an unbroken chain of notes from all the previous press secretaries, the last one and their oldest one I saw was from a Ron Nessent (ph) to Jody Powell. So it really is a remarkable jacket with some remarkable notes in those pockets. So I'm delighted to have it.

QUESTION: What happened to it? What, did Jake...

FLEISCHER: Can't tell you.

QUESTION: So the notes were still there?

FLEISCHER: Yes, the notes were still there. They're written on nice parchment and it really is, it's an historical jacket and I'm delighted to have found it.

QUESTION: And does the jacket fit? FLEISCHER: Haven't tried it on yet. I'm sure you'll give me reason to.

QUESTION: Did a member of the cleaning crew take it home and then bring it back? Or where was...

FLEISCHER: No, I just think what happened when they were cleaning -- I mean, they were so thorough in cleaning and painting and recarpeting that anything that was in there wasn't safe and so it all got picked up and taken out. And then I think just what happened was by spreading the word and by people in the press office calling GSA and asking GSA for their helping in finding it, everybody pitched in and they found it.

QUESTION: But you don't know where...


FLEISCHER: I'm still trying to find out exactly where -- I called the person from GSA prior to my coming in here to find out, I haven't heard back.


FLEISCHER: Pardon me?


QUESTION: So you think it was removed by accident?

FLEISCHER: Yes, yes.

QUESTION: Who brought it to you?

FLEISCHER: When I came back from going to the Department of Education with the president, it was sitting strong and tall up in my chair. And then I opened up that envelope. And it really is -- it's very nicely kept and wrapped...

QUESTION: What does it say?

FLEISCHER: It's advice to press secretaries, Helen, on how to handle the press. You can't read it.

QUESTION: How many times is she mentioned by name?


QUESTION: Ari, on campaign finance, given that the divisions between Bush and McCain are as deep today as they were when they debated this in South Carolina and before, isn't it true that in its current form the president would veto the McCain-Feingold bill? And is that a reason why the leadership in Congress wants to push off any debate on this until May?

FLEISCHER: The president is having Senator McCain to the White House today for the purpose of talking about how we can come together and get agreements on a host of issues including campaign finance reform. He's interested in having a good conversation with him about campaign finance, about budgeting, about pork-barrel spending and how to reduce it.

So there are going to be a series of items that they are going to talk about. And the president believes that we can make progress and work together.

QUESTION: OK, but the question is, wouldn't he veto it in its current form, given how deep their divisions were?

FLEISCHER: We're just not in the business of issuing veto threats this early in the administration. Let them have their meeting.

QUESTION: Won't he be talking about timeframe, though, and encouraging the senator to say, "Hey, let's get some of my priorities, education, maybe tax cuts, first, and then deal with campaign finance a little bit later?"

FLEISCHER: The president's focus is much more on the substance of campaign finance reform than it is on the timing of it. Timing may become an issue at some point. It's not an issue now.

The president wants to have a good discussion with Senator McCain about how to get an agreement. How can we have campaign finance reform enacted into law? And that's why it'll be a substantive focus.

QUESTION: Senator McCain thinks timing is substance, that if it doesn't get done in time, it substantially kills his bill. And if he doesn't get it by March...

FLEISCHER: Well, I think you first have to look at the substance, and that helps you address the timing.

QUESTION: Isn't that where -- I mean that's where the deepest divisions are in substance. And there's been no movement on that. They've met before. I mean, why should we expect anything to come out of today?

FLEISCHER: Because he's now the president, and presidents look forward to working with the Congress and trying to get things done.

They're not candidates running against each other. They are two former candidates who ran against each other, who have struck a very good relationship following the primary, who Senator McCain -- as you all know -- campaigned for President Bush.

QUESTION: (OFF-MIKE) in Pittsburgh. That's when he threw support behind him, and they couldn't agree on it then.

FLEISCHER: Well, that was then.

QUESTION: Now that Tommy Thompson has been confirmed as HHS secretary, will the administration formulate a policy toward stem cell research, given that Governor Thompson has endorsed stem cell research? But scientists feel there's some doubt that you're administration will follow in that direction.

FLEISCHER: You're familiar with the president's position on the issue. And if there are any regulations or any other changes that will ensue, we'll keep you notified.

QUESTION: But will you continue the NIH policy of allowing this exception so that researchers can proceed?

FLEISCHER: Again, if there are any decisions to be announced, you'll be notified.

QUESTION: Ari, two national security questions, if I may. One is, as you know, the new governor of Puerto Rico has, for all intents and purposes, abridged the agreement worked out between her predecessor and President Clinton on Vieques, an island off the coast which the Navy says it must have for live-fire training. Has the president decided a position on that?

And the second question is, as you also know, there are many expensive weapon systems on the table at the Pentagon or in the various stages of being produced or approved. Can you tell me if any reaction has been voiced to you or if the president has an opinion on primary the V-22 and the Joint Strike Fighter?

FLEISCHER: OK. On the question of Vieques, the president is very well aware of the sensitivities on that issue in Puerto Rico, and I think he's going to want to talk with officials at DOD about that before proceeding.

On the question of force structure, one of the first acts the president will ask Secretary Rumsfeld to undertake is a force structure review of the entire structure of our nation's military defenses, and that will in substantial part determine then what funding levels the president will seek for defense, as well as what priorities he will have in terms of weapon systems. So he will be directing that and asking Secretary Rumsfeld to undertake that total review of our needs.

QUESTION: Ari, Senator Reid today, after the meeting with the president, said that during the meeting the president ruled out all further federal assistance to California. That's not really what happened, right...



QUESTION: ... on the energy issue?

FLEISCHER: The president's position on the decision by the secretary of energy, with the president's concurrence, to extend for two weeks the sale of energy from the western states to California, that will be a two-week extension. That is the president's firm intention. Beyond that, there may be some things that can be done, and the president is interested in seeing if there is anything.

But having said that, the problem in California was largely created as a result of the way deregulation was undertaken in California. It was unique. And I won't get into the problems that it created by having retail and wholesale price structures at different levels.

But the president believes that this is a problem that can be and should be addressed by Californians. And he wants to be helpful to California to help them to find their own solution.

QUESTION: No further action referred specifically to the emergency orders, correct?

FLEISCHER: No further action on emergency. The secretary of energy made a statement yesterday.

QUESTION: Ari, is the president considering granting California a waiver or any other kind of authority so that they would not have to meet clean air standards, so that they could increase the generating capacity? Is anything he can do in that area?

FLEISCHER: That is an option that is available to the federal government. And in the event we have anything to announce, we'll announce it.


FLEISCHER: We'll we're going to take a look at a wide variety of things. But, again, the federal arsenal is small in this issue; it's mostly a California matter.

QUESTION: (OFF-MIKE) to help California?

FLEISCHER: Well, I think Governor Davis is one. He recognizes the key solution must be found within the state legislature. We cannot pass laws for the state of California; no one in the federal government can.

QUESTION: No, but you can help.

FLEISCHER: And that's what we're endeavoring to do wherever the federal government has an appropriate role. But the key solution will be found within the legislature of California and with the good offices of Governor Davis.

QUESTION: Ari, on the mystery handshake here at the inauguration.


QUESTION: What do you know about his identity and the facts of that? And what are your concerns about it? FLEISCHER: Well, I think the story this morning was accurate. He has done this before. And the president was never in any type of risk at all. And we have full faith and confidence in the Secret Service: They do their job, they do it professionally, they do it well.

QUESTION: Any idea who this person is and how he got his pass, how he got that close?

FLEISCHER: Well, he had a pass for the VIP - for the standing room area. That's where he was a ticketed attendee at the inaugural.

FLEISCHER: He went through at least one metal detector checkpoint. And I think the rest is all being reviewed until we know exactly how he got into the position he was. But, again, he went through metal detectors. He was ticketed.

QUESTION: Did he say anything to the president?

FLEISCHER: He shook his hand and handed him a little coin.

QUESTION: What coin was that?

FLEISCHER: It was just a -- it happens all the time on the campaign trail, people hand you little mementos like that.


FLEISCHER: No, no, there was nothing.

QUESTION: It wasn't a nickel or a quarter or something? It was some other kind of symbolic coin?

FLEISCHER: Yes, I think that's what it was. I don't know if it was currency. I don't know.


FLEISCHER: That happens often on the trail. You get little keepsakes, mementos.


QUESTION: Ari, in California, the Associated Press reports that when San Francisco -- the Chronicle, revealed that 66-year-old Mayor Willie Brown, who's married, impregnated his 38-year-old staff fund- raiser, who has no intention of marrying, Mayor Brown said, and this is a quote, "There's nothing unseemly about this at all."

And my question is, does the president agree with this? And does he want American education to teach this kind of view about adultery to our children?



FLEISCHER: I have not asked him about... QUESTION: You have not asked him about...

FLEISCHER: Would you ask him?

QUESTION: Would you ask him?

My other question -- the Clinton pardon of Marc Rich has been called "indefensible" by the New York Times and "unpardonable" by the Washington Post. Question: Does the president agree or disagree or retreat into the charming, "No comment," an ingenuous evasion of his spokesman?

FLEISCHER: He doesn't say "no comment."

QUESTION: Well, how does the president feel about that? Does he agree with the New York Times? I do.

FLEISCHER: With all the pardons that former President Clinton took prior to assuming office, the president has not weighed in.

Yes, go ahead?

QUESTION: On the phone call to Saudi Arabia, were there any substantive discussions on oil prices?

QUESTION: Because I know Mr. Bush has said that he would use U.S. diplomacy in that area.

FLEISCHER: They were really introductory in nature, and I'm not going to get into anything else that was discussed in those calls. That was the purpose of the calls.

QUESTION: Does the president have an opinion about all of the gifts that the president and Mrs. Clinton received as they were leaving, particularly Mrs. Clinton before her swearing-in as a senator? Does he find that tacky at all? Is it something he would do?

FLEISCHER: You know, I just think that you've heard this from the president before, that his whole focus is to look forward. And he does not look back at those actions taken by the previous administration. He conducts his affairs as he sees fit.

QUESTION: Following up on just a couple of things, on the DOD review of -- has the president already asked Rumsfeld to begin that because Rumsfeld has been approved?

FLEISCHER: The secretary is well aware of it.

QUESTION: So that instruction has already been given?

FLEISCHER: That was discussed -- that was one of the president's campaign positions and something the secretary is well aware of.

QUESTION: And just one quick follow-up on Lester's question. Is Willie Brown in the president's prayers?

FLEISCHER: I haven't asked the president about his prayers.

QUESTION: Could you give us a look ahead at tomorrow? What's on tomorrow's schedule?

FLEISCHER: Let me ask Gordon to address that. We're going to try to be publishing that a little bit later. And the elementary school that the president is going to -- I had earlier thought it was Northern Virginia -- it is in Washington, D.C. It is the Merritt (ph) Elementary School.

So, we'll get out the exact information. We're going to put all of that out, and this afternoon you'll have all of the details on it.



QUESTION: When you talk about the defense review, do you mean the QDR, the Quadrennial Defense Review, or something else?

FLEISCHER: This is something else.

QUESTION: The president has talked today about his tax cut package. You said yesterday -- you cited the exploding surpluses that the administration has inherited. What do you say to critics who say that the way the tax cut expands from $20 billion in 2002 to $300 billion in 2011, that that is an exploding tax cut?

FLEISCHER: The American people are getting the tax relief they so dearly need.

QUESTION: But what do you say to that it's an exploding tax cut?

FLEISCHER: Well, it's just the definition of budgeting. Spending increases, too. Tax cuts increase, too. It's just the definition of budgeting, you can't separate taxes from spending on those measures.

But the surplus continues to grow. And I think it also shows that the American people continue to be overtaxed each and every year, therefore they deserve tax relief each and every year.

QUESTION: Ari, just to follow up on that that, the Democrats -- apparently in the meeting, Gephardt said he insisted on getting a budget done before a tax bill, before you really cut taxes, so that you know the parameters that you're working with. Did that sound like a reasonable idea to the president?

FLEISCHER: Well, if that's a reference to having a budget resolution in place sometime around the April 15 statutory deadline, then proceeding with reconciliation, then that's standard order on the Hill, and we haven't made any determinations about the order and the timing in which we're proceed. But we'll keep people advise when we do.

QUESTION: I think he probably meant more, some agreement on spending levels between the administration and the Hill. Does that have to come into place before...

FLEISCHER: Of course, if you have a budget resolution I think you're going to have some type of -- with a Republican Congress and a Republican president, I think the likelihood is you are going to have some type of agreement on the framework of a budget resolution.

QUESTION: But isn't that reasonable to have the budget so you'd have some idea of what's going on?

FLEISCHER: Well, as I indicated, a budget resolution traditionally does precede reconciliation instructions.

QUESTION: On the tax cut, Ari, today Daschle was talking about this and said, Look, you've assume a $2.6 trillion non-Social Security surplus; he assumed a $2 trillion cost, including the inability to pay down interest costs, $2 trillion for the tax cut; and then added other things like an AMT fix and other things that everyone has anticipated; and says that will leave you over 10 years with no more than $400 billion for all other spending programs. Do you dispute those numbers? Do you have a different idea of...

FLEISCHER: Well, I have no idea where those numbers come from. Neither the Congressional Budget Office, nor the Office of Management and Budget have come out with their new projections of size of the surplus, size of revenues or size of spending for the fiscal year which we're in now.

So I think it's premature for anybody to guess what surpluses will be, what spending will be or what taxes will be. I think the sound course is to await accuracy and to accurate information, and then we'll make judgments.

WATERS: Ari Fleischer conducting his daily Q and A at the White House briefing room. More Q's than A's today on seconds such as campaign finance reform, among the others. John McCain meets with George W. Bush later on this afternoon on that subject.

We'll continue to follow developments at the White House.



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