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Special Event

The Bush Presidency: White House Briefing

Aired January 26, 2001 - 1:52 p.m. ET

THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.

LOU WATERS, CNN ANCHOR: Now, we're going to go to the White House. Ari Fleischer, White House press secretary, has begun his daily briefing.

ARI FLEISCHER, WHITE HOUSE PRESS SECRETARY: That was as "The New Yorker" statements.

Let me get into a couple items with you this morning. I've got a couple announcements to make. I'm sorry I'm running late. The president was actually reading me a very funny speech that he'll be working on.

QUESTION: Where?

FLEISCHER: Alfafa. Alfafa.

QUESTION: Can we have a copy? After he delivers it.

FLEISCHER: No. Alfafa.

Let me read you some statements this morning. This is a statement by the president on the earthquake in India.

"I am saddened by the news of the tragic earthquake centered in India's Gujarat state this morning. I extend my condolences and the those of the American people to the families of the many victims in the cities and villages of Gujarat and elsewhere. Earthquakes know no political boundaries. I send condolences to the people affected in neighboring Pakistan, as well. We stand ready to assist as needed and as desired by the governments."

I also have a statement -- this is a statement from the press secretary on an upcoming visit to Washington.

"President Bush will welcome Prime Minister Tony Blair to Washington for a working visit February 23 through 24. The United States and the United Kingdom share a broad agenda of common interests and values in Europe and beyond, and the president looks forward to reviewing ways in which we can intensify cooperation in pursuit of common goals."

FLEISCHER: "The president and Mrs. Bush look forward to hosting the prime minister and Mrs. Blair at Camp David."

QUESTION: Is that a state visit, an official visit?

FLEISCHER: It's an official visit.

QUESTION: (OFF-MIKE)

FLEISCHER: Working visit; working visit.

QUESTION: (OFF-MIKE)

FLEISCHER: We'll have any details on that a little bit later, closer to it.

QUESTION: They're going to be here on Friday and go to Camp David on Saturday, is that the deal?

FLEISCHER: I believe the...

QUESTION: The majority of the events will be at Camp David?

FLEISCHER: Yes.

QUESTION: The majority of the events?

FLEISCHER: Let me as I indicated earlier, I want to give a brief overview of the -- we'll do this at the end. I'll give you an overview of next week at the end. So let's take some questions, then I'll come back to this.

QUESTION: What about the number of Democrats he's met with this week? You were going to get that.

FLEISCHER: The president has met this week with 90 members of Congress, including 29 Democrats. He's had 12 confirmations in the United States Senate. He has spoken by phone with 12 foreign leaders. And he has 17 governors in town today: 10 Republicans, seven Democrats.

QUESTION: (OFF-MIKE)

FLEISCHER: Let me get back to you on that. I'll have to see if he wants publicity.

QUESTION: Ari, after a week of courting Democrats, both elder statesmen and present members of Congress and governors, does he think that the so-called charm offensive is going to ameliorate concerns over vouchers and the size of his tax cut?

FLEISCHER: Well, I think the president's approach to how to get things done in Washington is to begin with the power of ideas. He thinks that the reason you get legislative enacted and passed through the Congress is because you offered a good idea. And he looks at his education proposal and he thinks that's what's attracting support, because he's offered a sound proposal.

I think it certainly is helpful to have good relations. It beats the alternative, which is bad relations, with Congress, with Democrats and Republicans. But it begins with ideas.

QUESTION: Does his willingness to listen and to hear differing views, signal a willingness to compromise on vouchers or the scope of the tax cut?

FLEISCHER: Well, I'm not prepared to start discussing anything of that nature. That we have just introduced the education package this week; sent it up to the Hill. The Hill, of course, will begin in short order to have its hearings on the legislation. And then let the process begin.

QUESTION: He says he doesn't want to negotiate with himself. You've had a number of people who've been here to meet with him, including George Miller, who has praised him in many respects, but said, he made clear that vouchers we're going nowhere, that he would lose Democratic support. Does he consider that part of the negotiating process?

FLEISCHER: Well, the process is just beginning. The president, as I indicated, sent the bill up to the Hill this week. People are going to take a look at it. They're going to be various provisions in there where people whole-heartedly support, others that they may oppose, others that they're going to ask to amend. And we're very encouraged by everything we have seen so far, and we have good reason to keep being encouraged.

QUESTION: Do you think what you've seen so far is just the cordiality that comes with the honeymoon? Or is there something more substantive and business-like in what you're hearing from members of Congress, especially Democrats?

FLEISCHER: Well, honeymoons don't spring out of nowhere. Honeymoons also spring out of good ideas, good policies. And there would be no good reception if it wasn't for the fact that the president hasn't proposed good ideas. And that's what we're seeing.

And it's spreading; it's not just education. You see it now on tax cuts, where we now have -- are starting to build bipartisan support for the areas the president believes in. I think you see President Bush setting the agenda in Washington and the ideas on which he ran, delivering on the promises he made. And you're seeing a lot of that this week.

QUESTION: What's he learning about how the political landscape in Washington is a little bit different than that in Texas where he was very successful in charming even his adversaries?

FLEISCHER: I think it's too early to make any assessments, frankly.

NATALIE ALLEN, CNN ANCHOR: Some local cable companies will be breaking away now from our coverage. We will continue to cover Ari Fleischer's news conference.

FLEISCHER: This has been one week, and I think it's been a strong week. It's been a week that's been marked by some strong decision-making that is being reflected now in the progress we've made this week. But the real tests are going come, also, down the road.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

FLEISCHER (JOINED IN PROGRESS): White House life.

QUESTION: Is he using any of the amenities, the, you know, theater or...

FLEISCHER: Not yet. He's been a little busy.

QUESTION: Is he running outside?

QUESTION: Where is he running?

FLEISCHER: He's running inside. He's got exercise equipment, and he's been working out with the exercise equipment.

ALLEN: For those you rejoining us after a local cable break, Ari Fleischer talking about President Bush's first week in the White House.

QUESTION: Ari, would you all rule -- or would the administration rule in or rule out giving California exemptions so that plants that have already used their emission credits can stay in operation?

FLEISCHER: Well, of course, the only way that can happen -- are you talking about California making a request to relax its...

QUESTION: Would you rule in or rule out giving California an exemption on the emissions credit?

FLEISCHER: Well, our goal is to be helpful to California in whatever ways we can be helpful to California, and such a request would first have to come from the state of California.

QUESTION: But if the state wanted to relax rules so they could get new plants built, would the administration be willing to help them with that?

FLEISCHER: I think it all depends on what the specifics of the proposal are, and they would have to make such a proposal first. But we would like to be helpful to California whichever ways we can.

QUESTION: Isn't this a California problem that they should take care of themselves?

FLEISCHER: I think the bulk of the solution, as the Californians know and they've been working diligently on, will come from California, but there may be some other things the federal government can do, and that's what I was addressing.

QUESTION: Ari, how dismayed is the president about the vandalism? And what does he want to do with the cataloguing once it's completed?

FLEISCHER: You know, I think we've really dealt with that question. His focus is on governing. He's not focused on any of the things that took place as we arrived here.

The cataloguing that I mentioned, frankly, that's one person in our administrative offices who is really just keeping track in his head about things that may have taken place.

FLEISCHER: So we've moved beyond it.

QUESTION: But, Ari, this is a president who has come in here, expressed from the very beginning how honored he is to be here, how he wants to restore honor and dignity to this office. Doesn't he consider it a personal affront that taxpayer money must go to replace the vandalized property here?

FLEISCHER: He does not consider it a personal affront.

Yes?

QUESTION: Ari, could you clarify just a little bit the schedule for the budget? Is it early February, mid-February, late February?

FLEISCHER: We're leaving some flexibility in that to allow our policy people to have sufficient time to put it all together. It's a little bit of a different process any time you have a new president in office. In 1981, 1989 and 1993, the dates that those incoming administrations sent their budgets up to the Hill, their economic blueprints up to the Hill, were right around -- in one instance I think it was February 8, and then February 17 and February 18. Those were the approximate dates.

In all those instances, those previous presidents, Reagan, Bush and Clinton, had the advantage of a full transition. So we are working from a shortened transition, although I think as this week's events indicate, we were able to still do a considerable amount of work with a shortened transition. It's a long way of saying that date will be sometime in February. It could be late February, but I'm not willing to put a specific time on it.

QUESTION: Ari, on the Ashcroft nomination, does the president still have full confidence in his nomination of Mr. Ashcroft, given the suggestion that he may have lied?

FLEISCHER: The president does not share that view. I'm not sure that -- I've not heard that allegation. But the president has full confidence in Senator Ashcroft, thinks he'll make a superb attorney general. And he looks forward to his confirmation.

QUESTION: Ari, yesterday the Republican National Committee sent out this seven-page statement on Ambassador Hormel, including the New York Post editorial saying he's the worst kind of religious bigot, violent anti-Catholic.

QUESTION: The Weekly Standard's report the Hormel Gay and Lesbian Center in San Francisco's library, includes a children's coloring book of female genitalia, entitled the "C-word" or obscenity. And the Washington Times report that it also has pro-pedophile tracts. My question is, why isn't the president immediately removing this man from being ambassador to 91 percent Catholic Luxembourg, even though, I'm reliably informed, Mr. Hormel is defended by, believe it or not, Josh Gershstein (ph) of ABC?

(LAUGHTER)

FLEISCHER: As always in the course of any new administration, all the ambassadors have been asked to submit their resignations. They will be coming in in turn. And all the ambassadors were asked to do so.

There may be some instances -- and I'm not saying anything on this particular case -- where they stay over for an indeterminate short period of time. I'm not saying that's the case in this instance. But that's a separate question from anything dealing with Senator Ashcroft.

(CROSSTALK)

QUESTION: Close a loop on the lifestyle, about what time has he been leaving the Oval Office this week?

FLEISCHER: It varies. Sometimes he's had meetings in the mansion, which continue his business day. But it's been fluctuating. Probably, somewhere in the 6-ish range, maybe a little bit later. And then as I indicated, there are meetings going on in the mansion afterwards. He's had couple there, one with Trent Lott, one with Speaker Hastert.

QUESTION: And why is it a laughing matter to some to talk about President Clinton's possible involvement in foreign affairs? There are deadlines out there.

FLEISCHER: A laughing matter?

QUESTION: For some. Why is it not on the agenda what role President Clinton could play in the Middle East or somewhere else?

FLEISCHER: It's not a laughing matter. No one here has indicated it's a laughing matter. So I think you'd have to refer that to anybody who has said it.

QUESTION: Is there talk about it?

FLEISCHER: We addressed that yesterday.

QUESTION: Congressman Mark Kirk from Illinois just told us at a stakeout that one subject that came up at the lunch was the fast track authority. The president's very interested. Since he will be meeting with Mr. Fox from Mexico next month, but in Quebec with all the Latin American leaders in April, does he intend to bring the subject up between now and then and try to get support in Congress for it?

FLEISCHER: The exact timing of fast track and when president will ask the Congress to give him fast track negotiating authorities has not yet been determined. But it is a priority. Opening up free trade is vital to America's agricultural interests, it in our national interest. And the president is dedicated to it.

QUESTION: On the vandalism, could you have someone get us a figure because people are using wild figures -- $90,000 and stuff. Just give us some general ball park figure.

FLEISCHER: We're not. We're just going to focus on doing our jobs here. And any of the things that took place upon our arrival here are not in our focus. And I understand that it is in the focus of some others. It's not in ours. And we're just going to put our heads down and do our jobs and go to work.

FLEISCHER: It's in the past.

QUESTION: But, Ari, the president says this is the people's house. I mean, don't you folks owe a duty to the people to tell them what's been done to their house?

FLEISCHER: I think that whatever took place is past. And our focus is going to be to just do the jobs that the American people elected President Bush to do. And I can understand -- sometimes in Washington, people want others to fight. And this is part of changing the tone, we're just going to do our jobs.

QUESTION: Ari, some Clinton folks that we've talked to have said, "Now, wait a minute. There's sort of a double standard here." No one says from the Bush White House exactly what happened. There's this word, "cataloguing," but there's no specifics ever given. And they're saying in many respects, "We don't think these things ever happened in the first place. And we don't even know how to respond to allegations as amorphous as these are."

And when you say "cataloguing," is this a catalogue that's going to be kept within the White House forever, or at some point are you going to tell the American people in some sort of way...

FLEISCHER: It's one person in administration who is just keeping track in his head of the different things that people have said took place to their desks or offices. And as far as we're concerned, it's over.

QUESTION: Ari, is there going to be an effort to confront these things?

FLEISCHER: It's just not our focus.

QUESTION: Ari, did the president specifically give instructions that no kinds of criminal charges or legal charges should be pursued with respect to any vandalism or mischief that might have taken place?

FLEISCHER: It is the White House's position, it is our focus, and obviously, that's what we're doing.

QUESTION: No, did the president give instructions that there should be no pursuit of this in terms of legal or criminal charges of the vandalism or mischief or...

FLEISCHER: My information on it comes from Andy Card. If Andy had it from the president, I'm not aware, but that's our position.

QUESTION: Ari, can I ask you about the Blair visit, Ari? As you know, there is probably going to be a British election in May. Was there any concern at the White House that it might be impolitic to have Blair over so quickly?

FLEISCHER: No, no. He is the prime minister of Great Britain, and we're pleased to have him.

QUESTION: And how would you characterize what you expect to be at the top of the agenda?

FLEISCHER: I think we'll have additional information on the agenda closer to it.

QUESTION: To the best of your knowledge, do you know if any messages has been sent or is being planned to be sent to Russia like the one that you sent to Greenland, for instance?

FLEISCHER: I'd refer you to Mary Ellen on that.

QUESTION: Super Bowl weekend, have you found out anything about his plans? Is he going to Camp David?

FLEISCHER: Yes.

QUESTION: OK, what are the plans?

FLEISCHER: I just asked him about it, and I think he's going to have a quiet Super Bowl at home with his wife.

QUESTION: Which home?

FLEISCHER: Dallas.

So he's going to have a quiet time watching the Super Bowl at home.

ALLEN: Ari Fleischer -- on that Super Bowl note, we'll back off our coverage of the White House briefing today. We will continue to listen in if there's any other news that comes out of it -- Mr. Fleischer basically wrapping up this first week of this new administration, highlighting that the president has met with 90 members of Congress. Just under 30 of them were Democrats.

He was asked questions about how George Bush is fitting into the White House and his new home. The response is he enjoying White House life. He's walking the dog at night. He runs almost every day. He's in the Oval Office by 7:00, 7:15 and works there until 6:00 at night -- and as you heard, reporters still firing questions about these reports of pranks, even some reports of vandalism left behind by some staffers with the Clinton administration. Ari Fleischer, as you heard, reiterating they would like to move on and not to pursue it. He has said the president understands that transitions can be times of difficulty and strong emotion. And he's going to approach it in that vein. But it doesn't seem like they want to pursue any kind of investigation.

However, to CNN Kelly Wallace now, who covers the White House -- it doesn't sound like reporters want to leave it at that, Kelly.

KELLY WALLACE, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well, that's exactly right, Natalie.

As you said, reporters keep firing away questions about these allegations of pranks and vandalism -- Ari Fleischer and the other Bush aides, trying to, as Ari said, say that this is over, that the Bush White House is focusing on governing and not on any pranks that may have been left behind by some Bush aides. Now, Ari did tell us -- Ari Fleischer did tell us yesterday that the White House was in fact cataloging these so-called pranks to keep a list of what happened, but that there would be no formal investigation and that nothing would be done with that information.

And today he seemed to downplay that even more, saying it's really just one person kind of keeping track in his head of what happened, but that, you know, no charges would be filed in any way. Natalie, we're -- it's a having tough time trying to figure out exactly what happened. We do know that some w's from White House keyboards were removed. We understand that some offices, the phones in those offices, the calls were forwarded to the chief of staff, Andy Card's office.

We did talk to one Republican who has close ties to the Bush White House, who said some other, more serious things took place, such as some phone lines being cut and a lot of trash left behind, maybe even some graffiti on a wall. But, again, some Clinton-Gore aides are saying that, in essence: Show me the evidence.

They say they're not even sure some of this stuff happened. And they've been somewhat criticizing Ari Fleischer and the other Bush team by not documenting exactly what they are charging took place. And so therefore, they don't know quite how to respond -- Natalie.

ALLEN: So who would -- do we even know who would decide whether this warrants an investigation, if we're talking about some serious dollar amounts of damage?

WALLACE: Well, as you heard, Ari Fleischer continues to be asked that. And it appears that it's been a decision by this White House not to have any formal investigation, to just do this sort of cataloging of what happened and to move on from there. So it would be up to this Bush White House to decide if, in fact, it wanted to proceed with an investigation or take any other matters. And, Natalie, as we've been mentioning throughout the afternoon, Clinton- Gore aides say that when they got to the White House in 1993 and the departing Bush team was leaving, they said the place was not exactly the cleanest, that there was quite a mess. They said bumper stickers and posters were left behind. So there's some allegations that the departing Bush team played some pranks as well about eight years ago -- Natalie.

ALLEN: All right, Kelly Wallace, we thank you, at the White House.

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