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CNN LIVE EVENT/SPECIAL

Ari Fleischer Press Conference

Aired November 5, 2001 - 13:03   ET

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.
JUDY WOODRUFF, CNN ANCHOR: We're going to go to the White House for Ari Fleischer's daily briefing. Sorry, Bob.

(JOINED IN PROGRESS)

ARI FLEISCHER, WHITE HOUSE PRESS SECRETARY: ... two announcements of upcoming visits, and I'll be happy to take your questions.

The president this morning had his usual briefings -- intelligence, the intelligence community, as well as the FBI and Governor Ridge. He had a meeting that he convened of the National Security Council. Earlier this morning, too, the president called Arizona Diamondbacks owner Jerry Colangelo to congratulate the Diamonds on their victory in the World Series.

(CROSSTALK)

The question was, did that hurt me?

(LAUGHTER)

I fully support the activities of the president at all times, even in this one as a Yankee fan. Thank you for asking.

(LAUGHTER)

QUESTION: Did he call Mayor Giuliani?

FLEISCHER: That is the only call that I am aware of. Thank you for inflicting that pain on me this early in the briefing.

(LAUGHTER)

(CROSSTALK)

The president will be meeting with the president of Algeria later this afternoon to talk about cooperation in the war on terrorism. And the president will also be meeting with his domestic staff to discuss several of the initiatives, including the economic stimulus and the aviation bill that are being considered in the Congress where the president will work very closely with the Congress to get action on both those matters.

The president will welcome Sheik Sabah al-Ahmad al-Jabir al- Sabah, the acting prime minister and foreign minister of Kuwait, to the White House on November 7. And at the invitation of President Bush, President Ali Abdallah Saleh will also be at the White House.

He is the president of Yemen. That meeting is scheduled for November 27.

And with that, I'm happy to take questions.

QUESTION: Is the president going to pursue the nomination appointment of Mr. Gadi (ph), the Peace Corps director, when he has no foreign relations experience, when he presided over the nearly $2 billion bankruptcy of Orange County, when he is opposed as unqualified by several previous Peace Corps directors?

FLEISCHER: As you know, anybody that the president has announced for an appointment he, of course, supports. And in the case of anybody else who he has not yet announced...

QUESTION: He's not qualified, and in these particular times, wouldn't you want someone who knew the world?

FLEISCHER: Basically, in your opinion, he's not qualified. Others may differ.

QUESTION: Ari, what does the White House staffers here thinking about what happened this weekend in New York? Firefighters and police are very upset because they've been pulled back from the recovery efforts at the World Trade Center. And they are saying -- some of said publicly that it's amount money for Mayor Giuliani. What are the thoughts here about that?

FLEISCHER: Obviously, this is a very sensitive time for the rescue community in New York City, and I think that it's important to be understanding, it's important to listen as people move forward with the efforts to clean up what is left behind of the attack on the World Trade Center and doing so in a way that tries to bring the communities together. That has always been what Mayor Giuliani has focused on and I know that it's a very sensitive time for New Yorkers and they're working together on it.

QUESTION: Does the president agree with the fact that massive numbers have been pulled back of firefighters? I mean, they not only just want to find their people, but they're also are trying to find the thousands that are still in that rubble.

FLEISCHER: Well, the president is not going to micromanage the cleanup of the World Trade Center. The president hopes that it will be done in a manner that is reflective of the sensitivities involved and, obviously, the president has made a commitment to New York that he is keeping to give New York the $20 billion that he promised.

QUESTION: Several prominent lawmakers, among them Senator Byrd, even Chairman Young in the House Appropriations Committee, are thinking about another $20 billion, if not more, in government spending to deal with a variety of other issues -- some of them bioterrorism, some of them homeland security. QUESTION: What are the president's thoughts about going one dollar over the $686 billion number he negotiated on October, I believe it was the 5th, with the Congress? And how is he going to make sure that everyone who needs (OFF-MIKE).

FLEISCHER: At the president's direction, people from the Office of Management and Budget met last week with House appropriators, with Chairman Young, with several other congressmen, to discuss the level of appropriations appropriate for this fall. And at that meeting, it was made very clear, as the president has said before, he does have an agreement with Congress, and Congress committed to the president that they believed -- this was even after the September 11 attack -- that $686 billion was the right number and the appropriate amount of spending that would sufficiently cover all of America's domestic needs in the wake of that attack. That number has been signed onto and agreed by both the president and the congressional leaders in early October.

That number does not include, as also agreed to, an additional $40 billion of spending on the emergency appropriations measures and $15 billion which can be available for the airlines.

And so the president believes that as a result of the $686 billion figure and these other agreements, that there is sufficient funding, particularly this fall, to cover all the needs.

Now, as an example of that, why the president feels that so strongly, in addition because $686 billion is a hefty increase and a lot of money, they have not even yet been able to spend the $40 billion that is sitting ready and approved for emergency appropriations. There is always an issue when it comes to spending about after it is approved how quickly can you get it out the door. And they have only spent some $2 billion to $3 billion -- last estimate I saw was $2.3 billion -- of the $40 billion that is already approved has gone out the door. So there is plenty of money in the pipeline ready and approved, and the president believes that if they go one dollar above, the sky is going to be the limit and it is going to be another congressional bidding war, and he does not support that.

QUESTION: Do you feel -- will the president this week or some time in the near future, say the V word to make sure Congress understands that if spending bills come within a range that Mitch Daniels would push over $686 billion (ph) he will veto it?

FLEISCHER: Well, I think it's a little premature. Nothing has even moved. Right now, there's an agreement. If there's anything that moves, it obviously would go beyond the agreement that Congress has already made with the president. And the president would regret if Congress were to take any action that was contrary to an agreement already reached.

In the meetings the president has had with the four leaders, there is a concern about whether or not the lid will come off in Congress -- and this applies to both parties -- will take advantage of this to just start spending, even though there already is sufficient money. In fact, there's so much money, they haven't even been able to spend all of the money that has been designated for emergency purposes and to deal with the aftermath of the attack on September 11.

QUESTION: The president has an extraordinary number of meetings with foreign leaders this week. Is that just a coincidence because of the timing of the U.N., or is there something in particular driving all those meetings?

FLEISCHER: No, it's a confluence of events. And obviously, anytime that people are coming to the United Nations and New York City for a United Nations General Assembly, they're in our country, and so it should not surprise people if there'd be more meetings right around the time of this meeting.

But the president will be meeting this week, for example, with Prime Minister Blair, with President Chirac. And then he'll be going up to New York for the meeting of the United Nations General Assembly, where he'll meet with President Musharraf. President Putin is coming next week, of course, for a summit both here and in Crawford, Texas.

So there are a series of international meetings under way as well as the remarks the president will give tomorrow morning to a rather unusual gathering in Poland of some 17 nations that are gathered behind what used to be the Iron Curtain to now talk about how they are supporting the United States in the war on terrorism.

This was a meeting called by the Polish government to bring together the nations of Eastern and Central Europe to discuss how to work with the United States on the fight against terrorism. In some small ways, that's a rather -- very notable development. These nations used to be part of a bloc that opposed us; now they're working shoulder-to-shoulder with us.

QUESTION: Can you give us some sense of what the president is likely to say in that?

FLEISCHER: I think the president is going to give a speech in which he discusses how this is a war that unites the freedom-loving people of the world against terrorism.

He will remind people about the horrors and the evil of the Taliban and the Al Qaeda organization: the terror that they preach and that they practice. And he will discuss how the world can work together to win this war and how important it is to win it.

QUESTION: Would you update us on the status of your new international communications efforts?

FLEISCHER: Yes, let me give you a report on that. The Coalition Information Center had a very busy weekend. Al Jazeera TV at 1 o'clock on Saturday released the latest tape provided to them at some point a time ago by Osama bin Laden. And as a result of that, within literally hours, former Ambassador to Syria Christopher Ross, who is now special adviser to the State Department, appeared live speaking Arabic on the air on Al Jazeera TV to discuss the United States' goals in the campaign in Afghanistan, and also to address some of the issues raised in the message from Osama bin Laden.

The ambassador's message in fluent Arabic was essentially that Osama bin Laden is showing how isolated he is from fellow Muslim nations and from the rest of the world.

Following his 15-minute live reaction on Al Jazeera TV, the ambassador participated in a 90-minute discussion show about events in Afghanistan and in the Middle East. So I think one of the early successes that you can see for the Coalition Information Center is the ability to respond very quickly in Arabic in a key part of the world, as America gets its message to other nations.

QUESTION: Do you think that bin Laden -- I mean, you called is propaganda -- but did he make a tactical mistake, given who his audience was, by specifically targeting moderate Arab countries who are members of the United Nations?

FLEISCHER: I think that -- you know, as the president has said, he has just dismissed this as more propaganda that shows how isolated Osama bin Laden is. And I think, judging from the reactions of several Arab leaders themselves, they had a harsh reaction to the message they received on that tape.

For example, let me cite to you what was said by Arab League Secretary General Amre Moussa, who said, quote, "Bin Laden doesn't speak in the name of Arabs and Muslims," unquote.

Also, you had the words of the Egyptian foreign minister, Ahmed Maher, who said, quote, "There is a war between bin Laden and the whole world."

So obviously, when you take a look at the reactions that are given now by some of the leading Arabic figures, they, themselves, are pointing out that bin Laden does not represent the Arabic world, he does not represent Islam.

And keep in mind that prior to September 11 only three nations in the world even recognized the Taliban regime because of how oppressive and how unrepresentative they are. Since then, two of those three have cut off all relations.

QUESTION: To follow-up on what Campbell asked, having to do with the statement by the Arab leaders, you say Amre Moussa, Ahmed Maher, and I think this morning you mentioned a Saudi official who also made a statement, but my question is, are these statements being also broadcast by Al Jazeera or just for outside consumption?

FLEISCHER: I can't tell you if these are broadcast by Al Jazeera or not. I did not watch it all weekend. But I think it's fair to say that Al Jazeera covers very actively events in the Middle East, and so I think it's a safe presumption that they covered it, but I couldn't tell you for certain.

QUESTION: Ari, were any of these comments coordinated with the new communications center? FLEISCHER: No, they were noted by the Coalition Information Center, and then they were very quickly discussed and spread throughout spokespeople in England, spokespeople in the United States.

It's another way that the Coalition Information Center monitors events on the ground in the Middle East. As soon as there is a development, positive or negative, it's discussed and shared with the coalition allies, and so that we can rapidly respond to it in the region.

QUESTION: Was the communication team given a heads-up from any of these leaders that they were going to make statements...

FLEISCHER: Not to my knowledge.

QUESTION: Tomorrow, of course, is Election Day. The president is getting some criticism from conservative groups for not campaigning actively for the Republican gubernatorial candidates in New Jersey and Virginia. Why has he chosen not to do this?

QUESTION: And how does he respond to the criticism from people like Paul Wyrick (ph), for example, who said that he's made a mistake here politically?

FLEISCHER: Well, tomorrow is Election Day and the president has lent his support to our candidates in a variety of places. He has taped Get Out The Vote messages, there has been mail that has gone out. But the president, obviously, is also very busy with some other endeavors.

And I think it's too soon to guess what tomorrow's results will be, but no matter what they are, this has been a year in which, I think, there have been some four special elections to the United States Congress. The candidate's supported by the president won three of those four, and so, at the end of the year, I think we'll have a fair sense of politics.

But it's been a year in which there have been several positive developments already for the president and for those who share his views.

QUESTION: Did he chose not to campaign in person for Earley and Schundler in the two gubernatorial races out of a sense that his role as a war-time president required not appearing too partisan in an election?

FLEISCHER: Well, as I indicated, the president has taken several steps that were supportive of the candidates in both New Jersey and in Virginia. And as far as personal campaigning appearances, that's something that the president would always decide about whether or not the time is right for him to campaign and to play a more active, visible part in politics. But, clearly, the president does understand and believes that politics is an ongoing part of democracy whether the time is of war or peace.

QUESTION: Well, why did he decide that this was not the right time then?

FLEISCHER: The president just makes those judgments on the basis of what he thinks is right.

QUESTION: To what extent should these elections tomorrow be viewed through a White House prism? You pointed us toward the outcome in previous elections; to what extent should these be viewed then?

FLEISCHER: Well, I think, you know, in all cases, you have to take a look at off-year elections as local elections primarily. I think there's a pretty universal view on that, whether it was the special elections in the Congress earlier, in which the president played whatever role he may have played -- also, the elections tomorrow. Typically, these type of off-year elections are reflective of local events, local politics.

QUESTION: So you don't see any -- especially in the state races -- where -- well, at least across the river in Virginia they have talked, both sides, both candidates, about the terrorism issue and the response to it. You don't see any referendum on George W. Bush here, is that what you're telling me?

FLEISCHER: No. I don't think there's anything like that. I think Terry McAuliffe, the DNC, has said something similar about that, too.

QUESTION: If I could go back to foreign policy, it's very difficult to know who to believe in foreign policy, but what do you make of the fact that the president of Pakistan helps the United States, but many in Pakistan may be supplying intelligence and ammunition to the Taliban? On the other hand, in Iran you've got the defense minister who claims to be helping the Northern Alliance, but relations are strained. And then you have the Saudi Arabian controversy. How do you make your assessment? Who do you believe on this situation?

FLEISCHER: Well, I think what you're asking about is historical. It's indicative of the vagaries of foreign policy. And that's why the United States is so engaged in the world and is working with the different parties in the different regions, and is engaged in active diplomacy and active operations, and as we discuss different matters that you may or may not hear different things from different people in those regions.

QUESTION: Since September 11 there have been hundreds of people who have been detained by federal authorities, most of them are still in custody, most virtually incommunicado, held without their names having been released, and most on charges that would not have entailed the kind of detention that they're under now. Does the president believe that the danger the country faces justifies extraordinary federal law enforcements efforts in this way?

FLEISCHER: You may want to check with the Immigration Naturalization Service and the Federal Bureau of Investigation, because, in fact, the lion's share of the people are not still in custody. Most of the people, the overwhelming number of the people were detained, they were questioned and then they've been released. So on the premise of what you're asking about, it really is just the opposite.

And the reasons for anybody who remain under detention, for those people who are, that's something the INS or FBI could be give you more specific reasons why they've taken those steps.

QUESTION: But there have been concerns raised by legal experts and by some of the members of the Arab American community about the nature of the detention for some of these people.

FLEISCHER: The president is fully satisfied that anybody who is continuing to be held is being held for a wise reason.

QUESTION: How many do you have?

FLEISCHER: You need to ask INS and FBI for the counts.

QUESTION: The president's proposal for the stimulus package were released I think at least a couple of weeks before the latest unemployment figures. Given that the unemployment figure was bad just last Friday, why wouldn't the president consider spending some more money for unemployment benefits for health insurance for displaced workers, or at least transferring some money out of his proposal for tax cuts into unemployment?

FLEISCHER: Because the president believes that the amount he's proposed is sufficient and remains sufficient, even with the latest numbers. And I remind you that under the president's proposal, those states in which unemployment increased by some 30 percent will automatically qualify for the extended period of 26 weeks -- or 13 weeks above the existing 26.

In other words, above the six months under current law by which somebody would get unemployment compensation, the president will add another 13 weeks. So if anybody lost their job as a result of the attack, of September 11, under current law they will receive benefits through March 11. Under the president's proposal, they will receive benefits through June 11. And so to discuss anything beyond that at this time just seems to be premature. In the event that there is additional economic difficulties at that time next year, I think the president would be very willing to discuss it and listen to good proposals at that time.

But clearly, here in November, what you're asking is, "Will the president support extending unemployment insurance into the fall of 2002?" and I think that's premature. People who have lost their jobs will receive all the protection that they need through the summer of 2002 under the president's proposal.

QUESTION: On the Poland speech tomorrow, how does he make the case to these countries that it is in their interest to help us out? Specifically, several of these nations are aspiring NATO members and I wonder whether the president promises, implicitly or otherwise, to promote their prospects for admission. FLEISCHER: Well, one of the most notable things about the meeting tomorrow is that the initiative behind the conference was taken by these nations themselves, particularly Poland under President Kwasniewski. It was an initiative by Poland to bring together these Central European, East European countries to support the United States and the war on terrorism. Which is why I remark that this is rather an interesting development, because it was only some 10 years ago -- just over that -- that many of these nations belonged to a bloc that was opposed to the United States, but here they've acted on their own.

And that's one reason the president is looking forward tomorrow to joining them via live teleconference, to beam in and to talk about our shared goals, because now we have reached the point where so many of these nations which used to oppose us now share goals with us.

QUESTION: How's he make the case it's in their interest?

FLEISCHER: Well, I think they've already made the decision that it's in their interest, by having this meeting tomorrow to talk about how they can work with the United States in the fight against terrorism. If they didn't think it was in their interest, they wouldn't be meeting tomorrow.

QUESTION: Is the president's message to these world leaders this week generally -- is he leaning on them more to help the United States than he has been in recent weeks?

FLEISCHER: Well, I think you'll be able to gauge each day what the president's message is, and what he is trying to say. I shared with you what he's going to say tomorrow. You'll have an occasion also to listen to the president when the various -- Prime Minister Blair is here, when President Chirac is here and, of course, we haven't given any indication this early about what his speech to the United Nations will be about; there'll be more on that later.

QUESTION: Ari, on the stimulus package, as far as dislocated worker assistance, are you saying then that the administration believes there's sufficient assistance in there for health insurance subsidies, in the form of COBRA, or is there concern more that that could become a new federal entitlement?

And also, Senator Breaux, over the weekend, suggested as an alternative to the COBRA subsidy a health insurance credit. What is the administration's view of that as an alternative?

FLEISCHER: The president's proposal on the domestic front to help workers who are unemployed as a result of the attacks on our countries is two-fold. One is an extension of unemployment benefits, so it'll go from six months to nine months. The second is a proposal that would provide $3 billion worth of grants, called National Emergency Grants, to the states where the states would administer it in a way that could get health care to workers who have lost their jobs.

It differs from the proposals dealing with COBRA. COBRA is an entirely different proposal, and it has different aim. The president's proposal is aimed at an existing system that will provide for much more flexibility and much more direct assistance to workers who need health care.

And as a result of administering it through an existing program that is up and running and successful in the states, it could also be of assistance to somebody who may not have lost their job, but may have just had their health care impacted as a result of the attacks. And that's at the discretion of the governors. So it can provide even more help and more flexibility.

But in the president's opinion, it clearly is a better proposal than anything that would create for the first time a wholly new federal entitlement program, which is what these COBRA discussions are.

QUESTION: And you convinced that $3 billion is sufficient? The Democrats are contending you need at least $10 billion or $11 billion more. And also, again, what is your view of a health insurance credit as an alternative?

FLEISCHER: The president believes that his proposal, involving the $3 billion worth of grants administered through the states, through the existing National Emergency Grant Program, is the best way to get help to people who need insurance.

QUESTION: And the health insurance credit?

FLEISCHER: The president believes he has the best proposal.

QUESTION: Ari, is the president prepared to spend billions of dollars more on homeland security to ensure the integrity of (OFF- MIKE)

FLEISCHER: There has been a series of discussions involving Senator Frist and Senator Kennedy and others about homeland defense and bioterrorism. Those conversations are ongoing, and I think that we're getting very close to something that all will be agreed to. We're not there yet.

QUESTION: What about other aspects of homeland security: critical infrastructure, energy sector, as I said?

FLEISCHER: The president believes that the $20 billion package that he sent up to the Hill recently encompasses the needs that we need to address right now, and he believes that that's the appropriate amount of money that was contained in his $20 billion program.

QUESTION: Can you give us any readout on missile defense talks in Russia? There are some reports out of Moscow today that both sides are fairly optimistic they're getting close to some sort of way to work past the ABM Treaty?

FLEISCHER: Nothing new to report, other than I think that, if you recall, at the beginning of the year many people dismissed the president's idea of moving beyond the ABM Treaty and thought that it could never happen or that it would undermine stability in Europe. And with each passing day the president has been more successful in talking to world leaders and talking to President Putin and others about the need for a new framework to think about how U.S.-Russian relations should be approached.

And the talks will continue. As you know, President Putin will be here next week and he will be in Crawford, and I anticipate even after those meetings the talks will continue.

These talks are about creating a new framework to move forward in a way that for the first time really has the United States and Russia cooperating on so many of these big world issues, beyond the fight against terrorism; a cooperation on a new strategic framework dealing with missile defense and nuclear defense.

QUESTION: Do you anticipate any kind of a breakthrough either before or during President Putin's visit here?

FLEISCHER: Well, as I mentioned, I think these talks are going to be one stop on the road, but the talks and other activities are going to continue well after these meetings are over. So we will just have to see what events bring, but I am not willing to make any guesses or bets at this point. The leaders will get together and we will see what happens.

QUESTION: Yesterday, Nicaraguans went to the polls to elect (inaudible). How closely is the White House following results that should be known officially today? And what effect will whoever wins have on the relations between Washington and Managua?

FLEISCHER: The White House is following those results, of course; so too the State Department. And as you accurately indicated, the results are not yet known so I don't want to go beyond that until events are certified.

QUESTION: Is the administration working on putting together an international trust fund to rebuild Afghanistan, even before the war is over? For example, if certain territories are taken by the opposition.

FLEISCHER: The international trust fund?

QUESTION: Yes.

FLEISCHER: I'm have not heard anything about an international trust fund.

QUESTION: I didn't know whether there were any discussions under way, or an international fund of any sort focusing on trying to get contributions together for that sole purpose.

FLEISCHER: The president has spoken, of course, with the United Nations about the need to start thinking about a post-Taliban Afghanistan and what role the United Nations may be able to play. Obviously, anytime you get into a topic like that, finances does become a part of that. But there's nothing more specific that I am aware of, but let me ask and see if there's anything else that's out there.

QUESTION: The United States is going to increase the number of INS or Border Patrol offices in the checkpoints with the border with Canada, and also the United States is going to increase the number of Custom officers in the same border.

QUESTION: What is going to be done in the border with Mexico when it comes to increasing security, you know, the checkpoints with Mexico? And also, is that the same initiative going to be taking place in that part of the...

FLEISCHER: Well, the president does think it's very important that the United States be a nation that remains open to immigrants and remain open to free travel, which has been a hallmark of U.S.-Mexico, U.S.-Canada relations. At the same time, he wants to make certain that it's done in a legal fashion in a way that makes certain that every possible step is taken to secure the borders against those who would come here for the purpose of creating terrorism or committing crimes. And so there will be an effort on the borders to make certain that that is the case, which I think you can expect.

QUESTION: The president recently has spoken very enthusiastically about free trade and one thing free traders do is they reduce tariffs. But there's a particular issue between the U.S. and Pakistan right now some textile manufacturers in the United States are not that enthusiastic about: That's cutting tariffs on Pakistani textile imports to the United States. Can you tell us where the administration is on that and philosophically where the president comes down on choosing between someone who is a vital coalition partner and someone the United States would believe would be threatened by this change in economic policy?

FLEISCHER: That's the first I've heard about anything involving a textile issue, involving Pakistan. So I'll take a look and get back. Yes?

WOODRUFF: We are going to cut away from the daily Ari Fleischer briefing to go to the Pentagon.

(INTERRUPTED FOR LIVE EVENT)

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