THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.
THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.
DARYN KAGAN, CNN ANCHOR: We want to take our viewers live to Ari Fleischer, White House spokesman -- let's listen in.
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ARI FLEISCHER, WHITE HOUSE PRESS SECRETARY: ... Neal Sealock, who had just returned from a one-hour visit with our service men and women in China. The president was very heartened to hear that the spirits of the service men and women are high, they are being well taken care of, are being housed in the officer quarters where they are staying.
The president said to the general, this is a quote, "You are doing a great job for the country," and for their loved ones, referring to the loved ones, of course, of the service men and women being held. And General Sealock said to the president that the first message he conveyed to the service men was that, "The commander in chief sends his regards, and he has tremendous pride in you."
Two domestic items I want to talk about, because they're both very much on the president's mind, and he has discussed them this morning. The president is looking forward to the vote this afternoon in the United States Senate on the budget for the country. The president believes that the Senate, this afternoon, will move in the right direction to provide the American people with substantial tax relief, very much like what he promised during the course of the campaign.
After the Senate action, of course, the measure will go to a conference between the House and the Senate, where the House has already voted to pass the president's plan of $1.6 trillion in tax relief.
So the president is very pleased with the action that looks like it will unfold and for the prospect of the American people receiving the tax relief that they deserve.
A final item that the president noted this morning is there is also progress on Capitol Hill in the area that the president has said is his top priority, and that is education. There has been a series of actions that are very bipartisan.
The president is very pleased with the cooperative spirit that is taking place on moving his education package forward. He cited the work of Senator Kennedy, Senator Lieberman, Congressman Miller, a number of Republican members of Congress, of course, and is pleased with the action on Capitol Hill dealing with his priorities in improving education.
QUESTION: Does the president now believe that all the major hurdles toward securing release of the crew have been cleared at this point?
FLEISCHER: The president is pleased that events are moving forward. There remains work to be done. Intensive discussions are continuing in China. So the president is pleased with what is taking place, but he's cognizant of the fact that work does remain, and the end-result remains, that our men and women should come home and our plane should be returned.
QUESTION: Could I just follow-up on that? Is there an essential agreement -- there may be details that are in disagreement now -- under which neither country would assign blame or take immediate responsibility?
FLEISCHER: I'm not going to discuss the specifics of something that's very sensitive that is in the middle of being discussed as we speak. There has been an exchange of rather precise ideas between the Chinese government and the United States government that is ongoing. And we're going to continue to monitor it.
QUESTION: Would you characterize the kind of work which remains to be done as the building of a framework for both to exchange ideas or explanations, as the secretary of state put it?
FLEISCHER: Ideas, explanations. Work continues to be done to secure their release.
QUESTION: The idea is that once the structure is put together, and this happens, that they can be released. Is that the understanding we have with the other side?
FLEISCHER: Will they all go together? In the course of exchanging the ideas of developing the specifics to create the goal that the president identified when he spoke to the nation earlier this week about the release of our men and women so they can come home to their families, all the efforts in China right now are aimed at securing that result. That's the whole purpose of the discussions that have been under way.
QUESTION: One more, if I may. That's our goal, obviously. What is it that the Chinese want? Do they continue to want some sort of apology? They obviously want something as well.
FLEISCHER: I'm not going to characterize what the Chinese are asking for, what the Chinese position is. That's something for the Chinese officials, of course, to do.
QUESTION: You said just a moment ago that you wouldn't discuss something very sensitive that is being discussed as we speak. QUESTION: Can you confirm that these sensitive discussions are about the final deal and not about preliminary negotiations that may lead to a final deal?
FLEISCHER: I'm reluctant to put any type of time frame on it, like final, such as that. It is ongoing, and it is intense. It continues, and I think it's important to allow them to continue their important work.
But we will see what the exact time sequence is. During the course of diplomacy, of course, events develop, items move forward, items sometimes move not forward, things start, things pause. All of these remain possibilities.
QUESTION: But the discussions are about the deal to get them home, right?
FLEISCHER: That's correct.
QUESTION: Secretary Powell said that U.S. officials are expected to meet again with the crew tomorrow. Does that mean the U.S. has secured what we've been looking for, sort of constant or regular access to the crew? And is there any concern that that is an indication this might not be wrapped up any time soon or in the next 24, 48 hours?
FLEISCHER: The secretary indicated that General Sealock will meet with the service men and women tomorrow. We're pleased about that.
I think it's an indication, again, of how we are moving forward.
QUESTION: Ari, to follow up on that, if I may, the secretary also said, in answer to a question at the end, from the AP correspondent, whether China has agreed to further meetings, he said, "Yes." If we say, "further meetings," is this now an ongoing, lengthy process? Any idea of the timetable at all?
FLEISCHER: As I indicated, it is ongoing.
Diplomacy is ongoing. And it is at a sensitive stage, still. And Ambassador Prueher has been having meetings and will continue to have meetings.
QUESTION: In the meetings this time, the second one, were the U.S. officials allowed to meet with the U.S. service personnel by themselves, or were they still accompanied by a Chinese officials?
FLEISCHER: The second meeting with the general and our service men, they met alone. There were no Chinese officials present.
QUESTION: Did he say anything particular to the president back on what they learned in the conversations they were able to have alone with the U.S. service personnel that might shed light on some of the disputed facts in this situation? FLEISCHER: I'm not going to get into some of the details of their conversation. And I informed you of what the president discussed with the general.
QUESTION: Have there been any discussion between President Bush and President Jiang Zemin? And is General Powell the point man at this stage? And who is his counterpart in China? Is it the foreign minister himself or...
FLEISCHER: Well, Ambassador Prueher is the point man on the ground in China, in terms of the discussions with Chinese officials. This is a diplomatic effort; Secretary Powell, as secretary of state, is the head of the diplomatic effort, of course.
The president spoke to Secretary Powell twice last night, just for your information. Those conversations, I think, were about 9:00 or so. And the president had his first conversation of the morning with Condi at about 5:30 this morning about the situation in China.
So those are the people who are doing the talking. And, of course, Condi is involved, but this is a diplomatic effort.
QUESTION: Ari, is it accurate to say that, in these sensitive discussions right now, Chinese officials are no longer demanding an apology in exchange for any result, because there's been progress absent an outright apology.
QUESTION: Is that accurate? And how does that square with the fact that President Jiang is still publicly saying there needs to be an apology?
FLEISCHER: You know, I'm not going to characterized the Chinese position. I think those are questions you need to address to the Chinese officials.
QUESTION: But isn't it still accurate to conclude that that's the case, given there's been progress, that there is still, through channels, not an explicit demand for an apology by the Chinese? Can we make that...
FLEISCHER: Again, I'm not going to characterize the Chinese position.
QUESTION: Is it accurate to say that President Bush and Jiang Zemin have never spoken on the phone or never had any contact since he became president?
FLEISCHER: That's a correct statement.
STAFF: No. No, that's not. They've exchanged letters.
FLEISCHER: I'm sorry.
QUESTION: Exchanged letters?
STAFF: Yes. QUESTION: The negotiators are going back and forth. Secretary Powell has spoken of drafts. Is it the intention of the two sides to come up with some sort of joint statement? And can you give us a clue as to what might that entail, might it include a description of the event, as best we all know it, a description of mechanism for investigating the facts?
FLEISCHER: As for the specifics of what's being discussed, I just have to urge your patience. I understand the question, but as you can imagine, it is ongoing and it is sensitive. And for us to start publicly to discuss what is still a conversation going back and forth between American officials and Chinese officials would not be productive in obtaining the president's goal, which is to bring our men and women home.
QUESTION: Is the goal some sort of joint statement, at least?
FLEISCHER: I'm not going to discuss what is going on between the two parties as they negotiate.
QUESTION: Ari, what explanation can you offer the American people, as the administration's view, of why our service men and women are over there? Why are they being held? What can you tell the people?
FLEISCHER: As a result of the accident, of course, the United States crew made an emergency landing on Chinese territory, as it's been very well described. And I think you know the facts of the matter in which the plane landed and the pilot of the American airplane was able to successfully, in very difficult circumstances, save the life of his crew by landing on the runway. And that is why they are there. And, of course, the Chinese took the action they did, and it has led to the situation that we are in. And that's where we stand. I think it's all rather obvious.
QUESTION: The president has asked that they be returned, and they have not. What is the administration's view as to why they have not, you know, honored his request?
FLEISCHER: The administration is less interested in assigning any blame and more interested in solving the issue, so that our men and women can come home.
QUESTION: Ari, what is China's response?
FLEISCHER: I'm sorry.
QUESTION: What is China's response now, when we ask that the 24 detained service men and women be released?
FLEISCHER: They say that we're going to talk to the United States government about it, and that's why there's been this ongoing series of diplomatic exchanges.
QUESTION: China says that it will talk to the U.S. government about it, when the U.S. government asks for their release? FLEISCHER: I think it's fairly obvious. China is talking to the United States government about it. That is precisely what is happening. That's why Ambassador Prueher has been meeting with officials in Beijing, and that's why the president has said what he said.
QUESTION: Can I ask you again, because obviously I didn't understand your response? What is China's response when we ask that the servicepeople be released? What is their explanation for why they continue to be held?
FLEISCHER: They are aware of our request that they be released, and that is the course of the negotiations that we're in with the Chinese, to determine the best, as Secretary Powell described it earlier this morning, exchanging the precise idea, so that goal can be secured.
QUESTION: There's an agreement in effect between the United States and China that was signed back in January of '98, calling for maritime and aviation commissions. CBS broadcast last night that is on the table, being considered. Is it being considered as perhaps a way to solve this problem?
FLEISCHER: Again, I'm not going to discuss any of the specific ideas that may be part of diplomatic exchanges between the United States and China. You correctly characterized that there is a maritime commission, but I'm not going to go beyond that.
QUESTION: I have a question about -- just to change the subject for a second -- about the president's political philosophy. A couple of months ago, Business Week magazine did a poll, which found that three-quarters of the American people, quote, believe that "business had gained too much power over their lives." And in an editorial, Business Week called on corporations to, quote, "get out of politics."
Now, this reminded me of something I read by George Orwell, who defined fascism as economy in which the government serves the interests of oligopolies, as state in which large corporations have great powers that in a democracy belong to the citizenry.
My question is, does the president agree with three- quarters of the American people that business has gained too much power over their lives and with the editorial, that they should get out politics?
FLEISCHER: The president believes that, in this nation, we are all in our economy together. I'm reminded of an old adage that you can't be for employees if you're against employers. And the president knows that to keep our economy strong and to make sure that the American people have jobs and high-paying jobs, we need to work together in a balanced approach that protects consumers, that protects workers and helps business.
QUESTION: Are arm sales to Taiwan or other types of equipment to Taiwan part of this discussion with the Chinese at all?
FLEISCHER: No, they are not. QUESTION: Can I ask you, has the president contacted Tony Blair, for example, or Kofi Annan on this crisis? Have they had any conversation that you know of?
FLEISCHER: Nothing that I'm aware of. I don't think so.
QUESTION: Any foreign leaders that he's consulted with?
FLEISCHER: No, he's been working through the American officials, and rather productively so, giving them direction of how to proceed in the course of the conversations, which are bilateral and productively so.
QUESTION: Ari, a number of Asian countries are worried about this standoff in China. And also, Indian foreign minister and defense minister was here in the building, just left a half an hour ago, met with Ms. Rice. Was the issue was discussed with him? And also, what role is the United Nations playing in this matter?
FLEISCHER: I think I just answered that question, in regard to what Jacob (ph) was saying, about what the president's activities are, and I leave it at that because I just answered to Jacob (ph).
QUESTION: How about the Indian defense minister and foreign minister?
FLEISCHER: The Indian defense and foreign minister was in the White House this morning meeting with Dr. Rice.
He had a brief exchange of pleasantries with the president in the Oval Office, but his meeting took place with Dr. Rice.
QUESTION: The meeting with...
FLEISCHER: I haven't talked to Condi about her meeting.
QUESTION: Just to change to the Middle East for a minute. Holy Week is approaching, of course, for Jews and Christians. Is the White House taking any more active steps to try to quell the violence? And could you give us any general ideas about where diplomacy is going?
FLEISCHER: Well, as you know, there was just a meeting this week between the Israelis and the Palestinians, and that was facilitated by the United States. The president has made it clear to all concerned about the need to reduce the violence. I think that is particularly important as we enter a holiday period.
The president has said that the violence needs to be reduced, that he stands ready to help facilitate the peace. And that remains the position of the United States government.
QUESTION: Is the idea of a U.S. apology still not acceptable? And the negotiations with the Chinese, do they involve the United States continued operation in international waters where we were?
FLEISCHER: On the apology, the American position has not changed. And I'm just not going to get into any specifics that may or may not be discussed.
QUESTION: So if I could follow that, you can't rule out the negotiations for the release of the Americans involving a change in our operation in international waters.
FLEISCHER: I would urge you to be very careful before you reach any such conclusion. What I've indicated earlier is that there are specific ideas that are being exchanged.
I think you know the answer to this. I'm not going to get into what any of those specific ideas are. That is a matter of diplomacy and privacy, so that those ideas can be discussed productively, so that our men and women can come home.
So when I say I'm not going to get into any specifics -- and if you offer up a specific, I'm not confirming, I'm not indicating to you, "Yes, that may be possible or not possible." I'm giving you a blanket statement that I'm not going to discuss any possible specifics, because to discuss them could impact the negotiations that are under way, and I'm not going to do that...
QUESTION: But the apology itself is a specific, and that, we understand, has been ruled out.
FLEISCHER: And you know what the president's position is on that.
QUESTION: Ari, I want to go back to your statement on the domestic issues. While it is true that there is movement on both education and the tax cut, in both cases, some parts of the administration's program is looking like it is in trouble, vouchers on educations, the $1.6 trillion on taxes. Is your message today an indication that you all are ready to start talking now on maybe finding some middle ground that is not exactly what the president wanted?
FLEISCHER: No, the message from the president this morning is: Look how much progress we're making on the domestic agenda. This has been a very good week on the domestic agenda.
And the reason the president thinks that is because his budget is moving forward, and that's what will be voted on very soon.
And let me remind you that the history of Washington, D.C., until President Bush came to town, is that budgets were dead on arrival on Capitol Hill, and this budget is driving the process on Capitol Hill.
The president's idea is to provide deep, meaningful tax relief to the American people, to limit the rate of growth to a realistic 4 percent as opposed to the gargantuan spending increases of the past, and to pay down a record amount of debt. That's driving the process.
So the president is cheered by what he's seeing.
He's also seen in the course of the last year a sea change in attitudes toward tax relief. Where the attitude used to be, "Don't cut taxes. You'll never get it done. The tax cut should be zero," to a Democratic position of the tax cut should be $250 billion, then it became $500 billion, then it became $900 billion. At last look, it was $1.1 trillion, all the while the president has stayed fast at $1.6 trillion. All the movement's been in his direction.
There may be some movement that remains. But the point the president is focused on is look how much good is getting done. And it is because he has set a tone of leadership. He fought for something that he believes in. He has stood by it. And the vote tonight in the Senate is going to be a harbinger of more good things to come, when this goes to a House and Senate conference agreement, where then the president will get to deliver the tax relief he promised to the American people.
And education as well, a tremendous amount of progress is being made. And, again, the president believes a lot of that is because he has toned things down, he has worked in a very civil and bipartisan fashion with Democrats and Republicans alike. And the proof is in the pudding when it comes to education, and that pudding is rapidly being made.
KAGAN: We're listening to comments from Ari Fleischer, White House spokesman, as he holds his daily news briefing, talking about how the Senate will be voting on the budget framework later today. More on that later.
But most importantly, he reiterated comments we heard from Secretary of State Colin Powell earlier, that there has been movement in the negotiations with the Chinese, and that the Americans are encouraged by the progress.
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