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White House Press Secretary Briefs Reporters

Aired April 9, 2001 - 12:11   ET


LEON HARRIS, CNN ANCHOR: Let's go right to the White House, where press secretary Ari Fleischer is just beginning his press briefing for the day.


ARI FLEISCHER, WHITE HOUSE PRESS SECRETARY: ... leaders to Washington. The president will welcome Emir Hamad bin Isa Al Khalifa of Bahrain to Washington for a working visit on May 7.

And the president today announced that he will name Scott Evertz to be director of the Office of National AIDS Policy. He is currently the vice president of the Luther Manor Foundation Inc. and director of the resource development for the United Lutheran Program for the Aging in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. And as the director of this office, Mr. Evertz will be the White House point person and the point of contact for organizations focused on community-based, national, international aspects of HIV/AIDS.

The office will coordinate with the administration's activities related to domestic and international AIDS epidemic and it will be staff with two detailees, one from the Department of State and one from Department of Health and Human Services. And because HIV and AIDS is such a growing global crisis and because of the particular emphasis that President Bush wants to put on fighting AIDS and finding ways to reduce AIDS, if not cure AIDS around the world, the AIDS policy office will have an increased focus on international components of the disease.

The office will have, I mentioned, the two detailees from State and HHS, and the office will also work with a new high- level task force that will be co-chaired by the secretary of state and the secretary of health and human services, that will work with the White House domestic policy adviser and the national security adviser.

The final announcement I have is the president at 7:30 last night spoke with Tiger Woods to congratulate him on winning the Masters tournament.

And with that, I'd be happy to take questions.

QUESTION: Is Tiger coming to the White House any time soon?

(LAUGHTER) FLEISCHER: We'll let you know. I don't have anything on that yet. He just won.

QUESTION: On the AIDS office, real quick, what does the president have to say his detractors about this? This gentleman is gay. And at the Republican Convention, when the gay gentleman spoke before the convention, many in his home state, as well as many in the Republican Party, could not even look at the gentleman. What does the president say to those, especially in the era of bringing people together?

FLEISCHER: The president picks the best people for their jobs, regardless of what their backgrounds may or may not be, and that is why he has chosen Scott. The president respects him, knows that he is leader in the community that is fighting AIDS, and he will be welcome at this White House.

QUESTION: Ari, it's not just about what he is, but what he believes. It said in The Post this morning that he believes that, perhaps, one of the solutions to AIDS would be to reduce the stigma of homosexuality in the African-American community. Is that a position the administration shares, that we need to reduce the stigma of homosexuality?

FLEISCHER: I think what's important is to allow the office to develop and to come up with as many ideas as they can to fight what has been just a growing international problem that's wreaking terrible, terrible problems in many communities across our country and around the world.

And so the president is forming this group for the whole purpose of bringing together some of the best minds to share their ideas. It's too soon to say exactly what the tactics will be, but this administration is committed under President Bush to fighting AIDS and to having a high-level focus here at the White House to get that job done.

And I do want to emphasize the international component is generally new, and that's a reflection of the fact that the president is concerned about this. He has brought up the problem of AIDS in Africa with foreign leaders who come here, with congressional leaders who come here. It's on the president's mind, and it's something that he wants to combat.

QUESTION: Are you saying he's doing more than Clinton on that?

FLEISCHER: On the international component? Well, the office will have an international component built into its structure. But I think the Clinton people made every good-faith effort they could possibly make as well, and we're going to continue that in this administration.

QUESTION: What is the administration doing to make the language, which both sides are trying to use to solve the China dispute, understandable one to another? That seems to be one of the big hangups. FLEISCHER: The administration's actions are diplomatic. And by that, I mean any discussions and negotiations about resolving this matter are being led by our ambassador in Beijing, under the direction of Secretary Powell and the president. And he's been involved in many intense conversations with his counterparts in Beijing to resolve this matter. They're working on language. They're working on wording. And that's where the matter stands.

QUESTION: Is the president still going to China? And how can he justify it if the (inaudible)?

FLEISCHER: Well, Helen, as you know, the president has announced his trip to China. And we have indicated, previously, the administration has said they will take matters one step at a time.

But many members of Congress were supposed to go to China this week, and they canceled their trip. And that's further evidence that the longer this goes on, the more damage risks getting done to U.S.- China relations.

QUESTION: Well, do you see the president following suit in that...

FLEISCHER: I'm not going to deal with hypotheticals. The president has announced that he is going. The longer this problem drags on, the more damage will be done.

QUESTION: Ari, you had earlier said that you had no objection to the members of Congress taking this trip. Did they contact you before they canceled, and did you give them any guidance at that point?

FLEISCHER: They did. Many of them did contact us. And they were looking for guidance; they were seeking the administration's opinions. The administration did not tell them to cancel. We didn't tell them what to do, but the administration clearly understands what they're thinking and why they did what they did.

This is a sensitive moment, but those are decisions made by congressional leaders, and they give their own reasons for why they took those steps.

QUESTION: This morning, Congressman Spratt, who's the ranking Budget Committee member, said that he was standing in line -- or I saw him standing in line. And he said that he could not get hold of the budget until 10 a.m. The White House did not say that they would give him a copy of the budget, and so he had to stand in line with the press to get a budget. Was there a mess-up there? Is that policy? He said this broke protocol of 20 years.

FLEISCHER: That's the first I've heard of it, so I'll have to look into it. Standing on line with the press isn't so bad. No, I'll have to look into that. Members of Congress of course need to get their budgets in a timely way. But that's the first I've heard.

QUESTION: Ari, the president said that we are going to get rid of the death tax to keep farms in the family. Yesterday, the New York Times, on the front page, ran an article quoting tax experts saying they have never found a farm lost because of estate taxes. And they quote even the American Farm Bureau Federation, which supports the deal, saying they could not cite a single instance of a farm lost because of estate taxes. So what did the president mean when he said we are going to get rid of the death tax to keep farms in the family?

FLEISCHER: Well, one of the reasons for that is that farmers have to go through a tortuous process just to keep the farm in the family hands. And there is no reason that farmers or anybody else should have to go through these tax avoidance schemes, should have to get financial planners. You shouldn't have to get an estate planner just because you work the land. And the only reason they have to get estate planners and carry out all these tax avoidance procedures is for the purpose of keeping their farms.

If it wasn't for all those procedures they have to put in place, which cost them a tremendous amount of money, they certainly would lose the family farm, and that's why they do it. They're worried about losing the family farm. If you abolish the death tax, people won't have to hire all these planners to help them keep the land that's rightfully theirs.

QUESTION: Ari, I'm back on China for a moment. The president said this morning, the longer this goes on, it could harm the relationship. Secretary Powell said something very similar yesterday, as well. Can you be more specific about what you mean by harming the relationship? You've already addressed visits. Some on the Hill have talked about slowing down WTO entry -- China's still not member -- some have talked about the Olympics, some have talked about the Taiwan decision. Are all of those within the atmosphere of what you're discussing in harming the relationship? Are there other things?

FLEISCHER: So long as the talks are ongoing and it remains as sensitive as it does, I'm going to refrain from getting into any of those specific steps. The administration is taking it one step at a time, as I indicated earlier, and I do not think it would be productive to go down any of the items that could get damaged.

But you heard the president say it this morning, Secretary Powell said it yesterday, Condoleezza Rice said it yesterday: There's no question that the longer this goes on, the more damage can be done. I'm not going to today put my finger on what those specific items could be.

But, again, I want to go back to something that took place in the Oval Office, just about two weeks ago or so and that was the president's visit with Deputy Premier Qian Qichen, where they did talk about so many of the positive aspects of the United States-Chinese relations.

And it was one after another, all the positive, productive things that are under way between the United States and China. And from the president's point of view, if this continues, so much of the good they talked about can go wrong or will go wrong, and he wants to avoid that. QUESTION: On that point, you obviously have a number of members of Congress coming out and saying they're rethinking their support for PNTR. They're beginning to think that maybe this should in some way be linked to arms sales to Taiwan. Aside from what the administration might hold out as the list of things that are being harmed, what do you see in terms of relationship with Congress that are being harmed?

FLEISCHER: Well, I'm not certain, when you say "relations with Congress" that are being harmed. I think the president's relations with Congress is not affected by this. But the president is going to do what he thinks is the right thing to do. He will work with his foreign policy advisers, with his national security team, to secure the release of our men and women, and that's where his focus will be.

QUESTION: I mean, sentiment toward China in the Congress, not toward the administration.

FLEISCHER: From the president's point of view, there is no doubt that that could be harmed. The longer this goes on, the more difficult it will be, and that will particularly manifest itself up on the Hill where there are several important votes. So there's no question, when the president says the longer this goes on, the more damage can be done, that includes the conclusions that members of Congress will come to vis-a-vis China.

QUESTION: What step is he on now? You say he's taking it step by step. Where are we?

FLEISCHER: He remains in the middle of the diplomatic steps that he has authorized to be taken.

QUESTION: How long will it take them and how long of a delay before you do start using the word hostages? And isn't this setting a precedent? U.S. military personnel are being held away from U.S. diplomats for most of the day, and doesn't this set a dangerous precedent if you don't start referring to them as hostages?

FLEISCHER: No, from day one, the president's focus has been creating an environment that helps bring our men and women home. And he has kept this in that environment, and he has directed his staff to keep it in that environment, and the secretaries and the diplomats, also, who are doing his bidding, to maintain that environment.

And the president believes that is the most productive way to resolve this situation. As Secretary Cheney said yesterday, inflammatory words do not help, and this administration will not engage in them.


QUESTION: The follow-up is that, you know, the Chinese media reported, for the first time, today, really, about the meeting with the ambassador. Do you find that an encouraging step, in that it looks that they possibly could be preparing their people for a resolution? FLEISCHER: I'm going to refrain from characterizing any of the play-by-play, as events go along, each individual event. The president is going to just continue to let the talks take place, remains hopeful that this will be resolved soon. And I'm not going to get into the characterization, the moment-by-moment.

QUESTION: Ari, can I ask you also about the crew? What can you tell us about what their daily routine is like? When we and members of Congress and the public try to assess whether they're detainees, guests or hostages, how much freedom do they have to move around and how far are they able to go outside? You know, what...

FLEISCHER: They're staying in officers quarters on the northern end of Hainan, and they are in air-conditioned rooms, air-conditioned facilities, and they are being well taken care of. Their food is brought in from outside the base, suggesting a higher quality of food for them. All their personal effects are with them. They all, for example, have new T-shirts they were given by United States consular authorities, and so they were all wearing the same new T-shirts today. That was reported to the president.

So General Sealock, in his conversation with the president today, said that their spirits are high, that their unit morale is strong. And that's the status of them. They're getting exercise within their rooms. And that's the update on the status of the crew.


QUESTION: ... leave their rooms, for example?

FLEISCHER: I don't have that information on that type of movement.

QUESTION: The Washington Times reports that Bill Clinton is scheduled to give a speech next month in China, which is still holding our hostages, as Chairman Henry Hyde has called it. And my question is, has President Bush heard of any Clinton plan to cancel his speech if our people are not released or does the president believe whatever Clinton does is irrelevant? And I have one follow-up.

FLEISCHER: No, I'm not aware that that the president has kept up with President Clinton's travel plans to China.

QUESTION: Page 1 of this morning's Washington Post reports the express grief of a mother whose midshipman daughter was gang-raped by three Naval Academy football players, who were never prosecuted and are instead looking forward what one of them said, "We're going to show them when we play at another school."

Since The Post reported that their victim is white, does the Navy's commander in chief believe that if three whites raped a black, instead of vice versa, that they would get away with it as these blacks have? And is Commander Bush going to put up with this?

FLEISCHER: Your question was about what the Navy thinks. I would refer you to the Navy. QUESTION: No, what does the president think. Do you want to dodge this? I mean, what does the president think? He must be aware of it, isn't he?

FLEISCHER: I haven't talked to the president about that.

Go ahead.

QUESTION: I have a two-part question, if I may. We understand that China is going to demand reparations for the plane and for the pilot. Is the Bush administration willing to pay reparations as a sign of good faith?

The second part is that there was a change of words over the weekend. Instead of "regret," quote, unquote, the president and the secretary of state used the word "sorry." Are we to take any significance from that? Is that anywhere closer to the apology that China is demanding?

FLEISCHER: On the question of reparations, just like all other questions about specifics that may or may not be discussed between the diplomats, I'm not going to entertain any speculations about specifics like that.

As for the word use, it is the position of the United States, as Secretary Powell said yesterday, we do regret that the pilot is missing or perhaps lost.

We are sorry, as a government, that the pilot is missing, perhaps lost. That's what Secretary Powell said yesterday. That is the United States position.

QUESTION: But it's not an apology in any way, shape or form.

FLEISCHER: That's not an apology, and we have nothing to apologize for.

But we are a humanitarian nation, the United States, and we are led by a humanitarian president. And it is wholly consistent to have no apologies, because we didn't do anything wrong, while feeling regret and feeling sorry about a possible loss of life. That's in the spirit of this country, and properly so.

QUESTION: On that point, Ari, one gets the sense that while the U.S. won't apologize for being there, doing what they were doing, that there is a search for some words that are stronger than regret, but well short of an apology. Is that a fair way to characterize the current process?

FLEISCHER: Well, I think you've summarized the essence of diplomacy. Diplomacy always is a search for words and agreements to resolve peacefully difficult, contentious matters. And that is the essence of diplomacy and it is under way.

QUESTION: The Washington Times said the plane was detecting with -- the reconnaissance mission was to detect low-grade or underground nuclear testing in China. Is that true?

FLEISCHER: I'm not going to comment on any of those types of questions.

QUESTION: Ari, could the timing of the Taiwan arms sale decision be affected by this crisis? If it still hasn't been resolved, you know, by the end of the month, are you going to delay that decision?

FLEISCHER: They're separate decisions. And I've heard no discussions that the timing would be affected by this.

QUESTION: Secretary Powell said yesterday that, even though it's separate, it could certainly influence the climate in Congress, which seem to be a message to the Chinese.

FLEISCHER: I answered that question earlier, in regard to this affecting what Congress thinks. The question over here was on the timing of it, and I have not heard anything about the timing.

HARRIS: We've been listening to this afternoon's press briefing by White House press secretary Ari Fleischer, who did not report any major developments in the story of the standoff between the United States and China.

He says that President Bush's planned trip for later this year to China hasn't been changed; however, they're saying the longer that this standoff drags on, the more damage is being done to the U.S. relationship with China, and perhaps that trip will be changed.

We also heard that President Clinton is supposed to be going to China to make a speech next month, and there has been no coordination between the White House and him on his plans for that.

The last thing we heard talked about here was the use of the words "sorry" and "regret" in describing what's been happening in communiques between the United States and China, Ari Fleischer saying the use of those words do not constitute an apology -- something the United States says it will not make in this incident.



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