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Special Event

Attorney General John Ashcroft Holds Press Conference

Aired February 12, 2001 - 2:06 p.m. ET

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

NATALIE ALLEN, CNN ANCHOR: John Ashcroft entering the building, shaking a few hands, as you can see. The new attorney general of the United States about to hold his first news conference.

JOHN ASHCROFT, ATTORNEY GENERAL: Let me thank all of you for coming today. I don't know whether you thought we were giving away free cars or what, but I'm thrilled that so many of you are here. I'm glad to see you here.

This is the inaugural press conference for me as an individual bearing the opportunity, responsibility and privilege of being the United States attorney general. I'm pleased that you're here. I want to continue to be accessible to you, and I want to make sure that I have the opportunity to work with you and to speak with you about matters of great importance. When we have issues of importance and information, we will make it available to you.

I had the privilege of welcoming Attorney General Reno back to the office for what I considered to be a very productive meeting. Her years in this responsibility, which literally provided greater exposure to these tasks than any other individual has had in the history of this great nation, were not wasted on her. She has a lot of ideas, and she was very kind to come and share those ideas with me.

She gave me good advice, which I hope I'll be able to follow, about how to say "no comment," and that the attorney general would be making a mistake to provide information when it would be inappropriate.

She also had a lot of things to tell me about various tasks that were under way in the department and about how progress should be measured. And I'm delighted that she was here, and I will look forward to welcoming her back to the department to provide further advice and counsel.

May I just begin by indicating that I would hope that our time here in the attorney general's office is one which makes great progress in addressing a number of challenges which I think are significant in the culture.

The first is the challenge of reducing the incidents of gun crime in America. We need strict enforcement of gun laws, and I will begin an internal task force in the Department of Justice that will focus on the enforcement of our gun laws so as to provide a basis for reducing the incidents of gun crime in America.

Number two, we have a serious problem among young people, in particular, but not limited to young people, that relates to health, and it relates to kind of barriers that stand between people and productivity, that stand people and good relationships, and that is the problem of drugs. I'm disturbed by the increase in the reported use of some drugs among children, among individuals in school. And I will have a working group take a look at the problem of drug use and to assess the best way to combat increased drug use, especially drug use among children.

As a part of this, we will look to implementing the various initiatives that the president discussed during his campaign. He expressed serious concern, particularly about the elevated reports of school children in terms of drug use, whether it be in marijuana or in harder drugs.

Thirdly, I am interested in making sure that we do everything possible to combat discrimination in our culture. No one should feel outside the protection of the law; no one should be beyond the reach of the law. In housing, as it related to racial profiling, in terms of voting rights, every American has a right to expect that the implementation and enforcement of the laws be fair and be equal, and that the protections of the law be accorded to all.

I have a meeting later this week with the Civil Rights Division. This is my first divisional meeting at the department. And while I will expect the Civil Rights Division to carry forward to me recommendations on those things that we can do to best provide a basis for confidence among all Americans, that discrimination is something we will not tolerate, that the enforcement of the law and the protection of the law will be accorded to every citizen, and that no citizen will be beyond the reach of the law.

I have enjoyed my opportunity to begin getting acquainted with the Department of Justice. As you all know, it is a broad organization that includes about 125,000 employees.

My first day on the job here involved my working my way up through seven floors of this building, shaking hands with individuals. I have since been to three other buildings. Of course, I spent a couple of hours in the FBI building, with the thousands of individuals that work in that office, and two other buildings.

And I am going to do my best to be involved with and to signal to the people who populate this important responsibility of government that they are the Department of Justice, that justice is not an abstraction that takes place absent people working hard to get it done. And it is a responsibility not only of those in government, but a responsibility of all Americans.

And so I have had the opportunity to be in four of the separate installations in Washington to date, but look forward to expanding my opportunity to deal with individuals who have the responsibility and the opportunity to participate in justice across the country as part of this great Justice Department. It's my understanding now that we should take about 20 minutes for questions. And so I'd be pleased to take questions.

Thank you.

QUESTION: Mr. Ashcroft?

ASHCROFT: Yes, sir?

QUESTION: You've inherited special counsel regulations signed by your predecessor.

QUESTION: Given that there's been a firestorm in the media and on Capitol Hill about gifts given to the Clintons, or taken by the Clintons from the White House, and on some controversy surrounding presidential pardons, have you or has anyone in the department discussed the possibility of appointing a special counsel to investigate either of those matters?

ASHCROFT: I don't have any comment on that, no.

QUESTION: Mr. Attorney General, somewhat of a related question, of course the Marc Rich pardon has gotten a lot of ink. How does the Department of Justice feel about congressional immunity for Denise Rich? Would you oppose that?

ASHCROFT: Well, first of all, I think it is always very important for us to take those kinds of requests very seriously. If I'm not mistaken, remembering back a few years, problems with immunity and grants of immunity resulted in the overturn of a number of convictions, I believe, in the Iran-Contra situation.

I have to say, though, that I respect the right of the United States Congress to get information and to grant immunity in order to get information. That's a kind of a use immunity, of course. And I respect the need for cooperation.

And so it's with that in mind that I would say that I would be very pleased to work with the department to cooperate with the Congress whenever possible.

I don't want to say that we have made a decision on the request, but we will work with the understanding of the need for the Congress to get its work done as well.

QUESTION: Mr. Attorney General...

ASHCROFT: Yes, ma'am.

QUESTION: ... the agenda that you just laid out, is that partially in a response to some of the criticism that you received during the hearings on the Hill?

ASHCROFT: It's in response to what I believe to be the needs of this culture. I think it's important for every American to feel that the law will protect them and will protect them aggressively. I think it's important for Americans to understand that they are not beyond the protection of the law nor are they beyond the reach of the law.

I think it's pretty clear, from what I believe to be some of the evidence, that if we'll enforce gun laws aggressively, that we can reduce gun violence. And I want to appoint this task force to find out how we can make sure that we do a better job of enforcement, thereby reducing it.

And obviously, in terms of the war on drugs, children may only be 25 percent of our culture, but they're 100 percent of our future. To the extent that we can reduce the incidence of drug use among children, I think we provide a sound and solid basis for the future. So developing a working group on reducing the incidents of drug use is something that's very important.

I believe that these are important national interests, and that's the reason we've identified them as priorities.

Yes, sir?

QUESTION: Mr. Attorney General, there's some confusion about the administration's position on abortion, vis-a-vis Roe v. Wade. Many people thought they heard you to say during the hearings that you would not seek any opportunities before the Supreme Court to overturn that, and that you said that even when the question was, "if there was a change in personnel on the court." Since then, Vice President Cheney and others seem to have suggested otherwise.

Is that a right interpretation? Did you make such a pledge? And how firm is it?

ASHCROFT: I stand by what I said in the committee.

(CROSSTALK)

ASHCROFT: Well, I think the record is clear on it. I said that I didn't believe it was the agenda of the administration to unsettle what was settled law, and that, as the attorney general, I would be pursuing the agenda of the administration.

Yes, sir?

QUESTION: During the president campaign, Mr. Bush expressed some skepticism toward the Microsoft antitrust trial. With oral arguments in a couple weeks, can we expect any change of course by the Justice Department there? And also, as a follow-up question, have you had any conversations with Microsoft since you have assumed the position?

ASHCROFT: I won't be commenting on that as a matter that's under consideration and obviously in the midst of litigation at this time.

Yes, ma'am.

QUESTION: I have a two-part question on gun violence. You have said on the Larry King show that you're going to make Project Exile the centerpiece of the fight against gun violence. Project Exile, the numbers are pretty squishy on whether it alone has helped reduce gun violence in Richmond. In fact, in cities like New Orleans, the rate of gun homicides went down by the same percentage as Richmond, even before Project Exile was put in.

QUESTION: Project Exile is an NRA-backed program, and the NRA has been one of your biggest campaign contributors and political supporters when you were in the Senate.

And my two questions are: Will you do any kind of empirical studies before you institute Project Exile-like programs in other states? And second, will you be able to adequately enforce the nation's gun laws, given your past relationship with the NRA?

ASHCROFT: Well, first of all, let me just say that the reason I'm appointing an internal task force regarding the department and its position, as it relates to the enforcement of gun laws, is that I want our enforcement to be productive and I want it to be effective, and we'll want that task force to direct its efforts effectively.

Obviously, I will enforce the gun laws of this country. And I don't believe that there's anything in my past that indicates that I won't enforce them. I will expect them to be enforced by U.S. attorneys across America.

A number of U.S. attorneys participated in similar projects already. And from what they tell me -- and one of the reasons I want to develop the task force, is to make sure that we understand it properly. From what they tell me, they believe that the response to the enforcement effort is a very productive one and valuable one.

Yes, ma'am?

QUESTION: Tomorrow, the FBI is examining hate crimes. I was wondering if you could lay out for us your strategy concerning hate crimes.

ASHCROFT: Well, in two respects.

Any violation of the hate crime law, I think you can expect to see the Department of Justice doing what it can to make sure that U.S. attorneys enforce the law appropriately. And frankly, and as I said in my hearings, any adjustments in the hate crime law made by the United States Congress, signed by the president, would become the basis for the way in which the Department of Justice responds to those circumstances.

QUESTION: The Civil Rights Division that you'll meet with later in the week, they have said in the past crimes against gays and lesbians is the fastest growing category that they've been investigating, and that the crimes are often brutal in nature. And they really want the protections under the hate crimes bill that has now become law. Will you change your position on that? Will you back any expansion for sexual orientation, sex and disability?

ASHCROFT: Well, I'll be looking forward to meeting with that division. They are the first division that I'll have a formal meeting with in the Department of Justice. I'm eager to hear their reports to me and will reserve judgments upon what I'll do in response to their reports until after I've heard the reports.

QUESTION: Senator Ashcroft?

ASHCROFT: Yes, sir?

QUESTION: Do you expect to meet with some of the groups that were very aggressive in their attacks on you, in terms of trying to sound them out?

ASHCROFT: I have every intention of serving all Americans as the attorney general. I will be happy to meet with individuals and individuals who have the kinds of interests that have been expressed. I look forward to enforcing the law with an evenhanded energy and would hope that there is a basis in the conduct of this department which provides every citizen with the confidence that the law is meant to protect them, and also with an understanding that the law, if they violate it, is meant to reach them.

Yes, sir?

QUESTION: Attorney General Ashcroft, you mentioned that you're going to have a meeting, your first divisional meeting with the Civil Rights Division. How long do you think it will take until you appoint or the president appoints your own head of the Civil Rights Division? Actually, I have a two-part question, but that's the first part. In terms of getting someone in place there to go forward.

ASHCROFT: Let me say this, that I've been very pleased with the kinds of applicants and the kinds of individuals who have been willing to consider and express an interest in working in this Justice Department. It's been gratifying, in some measure because many of them are people who have previously been involved with this department.

It seems as if individuals, once they have worked here, never quite find a place that they like working as well as they like working here. And since some of you have worked here a lot longer than I have, you probably know what that feeling is. But I'm delighted that that's the feeling on the part of individuals.

As you well know, we have yet to have an announcement of anyone, although there is clear awareness in the public as a result of stories you all have written, about a number of individuals that are under active consideration. We have as a very high priority, a very high priority, the staffing of the assistant attorneys general offices, as well as the deputy and the solicitor general as a part of administering justice.

And I wish I could give you better information, but I think I'll take Janet Reno's advice here and not comment on something that I can't give you any assurance about. It is a high priority, and we are making progress and interviewing dozens of individuals. I've spent most of my time, I think it's fair to say, even before my confirmation, in beginning to develop an awareness of these individuals who have expressed an interest in serving in the department. QUESTION: The second part of my question was whether you feel comfortable with the coordination that you have with the White House in terms of the selection. Since these are presidential appointments that are Senate-confirmed, but all of these folks are going to be working for and reporting to you. Could you just give us a sense of what the coordination is like?

ASHCROFT: There's no question that the president is interested in getting high-quality people, and I'm delighted with that. And the kinds of individuals that we have had the chance to talk to are people whose credentials and capacities are not only apparent from a resume but they're very documented from career experience. And that's encouraging to me.

Obviously, I'll be most encouraged when we begin to get real announcements and confirmations, because, as I indicated earlier, the work of this department is the work of people, and we need people to make sure that the objectives of the department are met.

QUESTION: Can you confirm that Mr. Olson and Mr. Thompson are, in fact, choices for you? Or are you going to hold off on those announcements until you have selected your assistant attorneys general?

ASHCROFT: Well, let me just say this, that I doubt if we'll hold off on anything until all the people have been announced. And I would say that Mr. Thompson and Mr. Olson are very outstanding individuals, whose records of public service, including service with this Department of Justice, are exemplary records. But those are not my announcements to make. Those are presidential appointments and they will require, in each case, the confirmation by the United States Senate.

But I would certainly hope that we would be able to have announcements made in this regard prior to the fact that we've filled all the positions and that we'll just want to be able to take some of them as we get them and look forward to those.

QUESTION: Sir, on the question of pardons, of the 176 pardons and commutations granted by President Clinton, more than 60 percent of them were to white collar criminals. And the Bureau of Prisons says that less than 1 percent of the whole prison population are white collar criminals. And so the question I have is, do you believe that justice is the best that can be bought? That is, does the justice system favor white collar and corporate criminals at the expense of justice for the regular guy?

ASHCROFT: I'm trying to unload that question a little bit.

(LAUGHTER)

ASHCROFT: First of all, the pardon situation is not the traditional part of justice. You know, the indictment, the charge, the prosecution, eventual conviction or rendering of a verdict of innocence is the normal justice process. And while it's consistent with the president's authority to issue pardons, I don't want to say that there's a whole lot you can conclude about the justice system generally, just by looking at the pardons. I believe the president has a very substantial right to pardon individuals; it's granted by the United States Constitution. And when a president exercises that right, he operates, I would hope, within the limits of the Constitution, and there are very few limits in that respect.

And I don't believe that I can reach a conclusion beyond that. The president did exercise his right to grant pardons, from all the information I have. And the fact that he choose in those areas is a question that he can answer more than I could.

QUESTION: The U.S. attorney in New York is considering a criminal probe into the Marc Rich pardon. Does she have or has she sought the backing of main Justice in that effort?

ASHCROFT: I don't think it would be appropriate for me to comment on issues like that.

Yes, ma'am?

QUESTION: This task force you mentioned on gun crimes, can you tell us who will be serving on it? What, if you don't know the precise names of the people yet, can you tell where the people will be coming from?

QUESTION: Are you going to wait until you have an assistant AG for Criminal, for example? Will there be people from the U.S. attorneys offices? Can you say who is going to be on that...

ASHCROFT: Well, we will want the task force to reflect the kind of judgments that will bring to bear the wisdom from the field, from U.S. attorneys offices, from the Washington perspective, probably have the right kind of contacts to be able to go beyond just federal law enforcement officials so that we can invite information from outside the federal justice system, because the challenge we face, in terms of gun crime, isn't one that is defined or exclusively understood here at the heart of the Justice Department in the national system.

So I think you can expect to have a diverse representation from within the department, but also to welcome information from without the department in the conduct of the study.

QUESTION: Mr. Ashcroft, on the question of presidential pardons, do you think there is any issue there, given the president's almost absolute power to issue pardons, that the Justice Department could look into, as far as what transpired last month?

ASHCROFT: I don't think it would be appropriate for me to comment on that.

Yes, sir?

QUESTION: Considering that the Antitrust Division has got a number of cases coming up, is that one of the possible positions you might look to fill a little bit faster? I know we discussed Charles James amongst us as one possibility for that particular position.

ASHCROFT: I think the Antitrust Division is a very important division.

Obviously, I hate to try and rank and say that our announcements will proceed based on exclusively a ranking of importance, because there may be some division which we can get a clear understanding of who's willing to take the job with excellent credentials that may not be in a necessarily otherwise priority position, but if you can fill it, you ought to go ahead and fill it. And so I just say to you that I do believe that the Antitrust Division is a very important division and look forward to having leadership in that division which carries us forward.

QUESTION: Mr. Ashcroft?

ASHCROFT: Yes, sir.

QUESTION: Is it accurate then to say, just to follow-up on the pardon question, that you're trying to make a determination whether or not you have any position here to explore?

ASHCROFT: I don't think I should comment on that. Thank you.

Yes, sir?

QUESTION: Given the fact 42 Democrats voted against you, do you feel at all inhibited in your conservative views that you're going to have to rein yourself in during your time here?

ASHCROFT: Not really.

(LAUGHTER)

ASHCROFT: I think my conservative view is that I should enforce the law as it is written. I think one of the elements of conservatism is to take the law as it is and to work to enforce it, not to supersede the law with your own judgment or your own idea of what should be. I don't want to do that. I think one element of conservatism is to say what the law is and to live by it.

ASHCROFT: And those individuals who felt like they should vote against my confirmation are well-meaning individuals. I, frankly, spent about 15 minutes on the phone with one of them this morning who is an old friend of mine and who will continue to be a friend of mine. I don't think those votes are going to make any difference in the way I conduct myself or in our ability to work together.

QUESTION: Let me just ask you a question about the COPS program, which became somewhat controversial in the campaign. What kind of future do you expect for that program, particularly in view of budget cuts coming down in the Justice Department?

ASHCROFT: Well, it may well depend on the level of the funding which is available for the program. I know that there are a number of law enforcement officials around the country who have expressed to me their affection for it.

Thank you all very much. Thank you.

ALLEN: John Ashcroft, as you know, he was a controversial nominee, but he did get the job as attorney general and he's laying out his priorities there. He was just asked a question, was he going to have to rein in his conservative view to do his job. He said no, he plans on carry out the laws of this country.

He laid out his priorities: strict enforcement of existing gun laws; decreased drug use among children, which is on the rise; and he also said he would be meeting with the civil rights division later this week. And then to CNN's Bob Franken.

Bob, he used a tactic he said he learned from Janet Reno on another question, how to say no comment.

BOB FRANKEN, CNN CORRESPONDENT: He's learned that one very quickly.

ALLEN: Yes, he was very good with that in this, his first news conference, but it was surrounding the controversy that continues to swirl around President Clinton's presidential pardons, the gifts. He was even asked about a possible criminal probe into the pardon of Mark Rich by the U.S. Attorney in New York. He wouldn't take any of those.

FRANKEN: No, the variations.

ALLEN: Is this a topic that you think the Justice Department is looking at, do you know?

FRANKEN: Well, no. I don't know. The fact of the matter is is that there's some talk that the U.S. Attorney in the southern district of New York may in fact be discussing this. But Ashcroft not only had the no comment but he the variation on that which is on the one hand and the other hand.

And I'm talking about the question that had to do with the requests from the House Government Reform Committee for the Justice Department to say it's OK to grant immunity. Justice would normally say, no, it's not OK if in fact it was jeopardizing an investigation. What he said was is exactly this: That on the one hand, quoting him almost exactly, on the one hand the Department does not believe in uprooting investigations by having Congressional grants of immunity issued. But on the other, he believes that Congress has a right to inquire into these matters, so he wants to cooperate with Congress.

And there you have an extremely hard-hitting noncommittal answer

(LAUGHTER)

ALLEN: And when do the hearings continue?

FRANKEN: Well, the hearings are going to continue when they get their act together, basically. There's going to be a congressional break coming up. The question really is will the committee be able to have Denise Rich as a witness. You can bet that the members of the committee probably will. But it's going to be two or three weeks before all of this is decided and whether we find out whether there is going to be a grant of immunity.

Now, there is a hearing on the other side of the Capitol Wednesday, the day after tomorrow. Senator Arlen Specter's subcommittee is going to be conducting a hearing which really parallels all of this. Of course, Spector is probably going to try and chart some new territory.

But, so that hearing is going on on Wednesday. That will be the pardon hearing of the week. But the reform -- the Burton committee hearing, the House side of the Capitol, that's two or three weeks away. So, the question is when might we see Denise Rich? The answer is it could be the better part of a month.

ALLEN: OK, all right, and the story will go on for a while then. All right, Bob Franken in Washington. Bob, thank you, as always.

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