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Ari Fleischer Gives White House Briefing

Aired November 29, 2001 - 13:36   ET


JUDY WOODRUFF, CNN ANCHOR: Ari Fleischer now at the podium. We are going to go to that. I apologize for interrupting Alessio Vinci's report.

ARI FLEISCHER, WHITE HOUSE PRESS SECRETARY: Good afternoon. I would like to thank whoever has put this picture on the podium of a very young looking Helen Thomas asking a question to Richard Nixon -- or at least writing and listening, as Helen is on the side.


FLEISCHER: Actually, Helen, it looks to me like you're listening.


And Connie is wearing sunglasses in this picture.


FLEISCHER: Thank you to whoever has given me this little bonbon.

I have no opening statement, other than that. I'm happy to take your questions.

QUESTION: Ari, given the reality now with deficits over the next few years, as Director Daniels has pointed out, is the president prepared to postpone some of his campaign promises in the area of prescription drugs or reforming Social Security? And if not, how does he plan to pay for it now that we're in deficits?

FLEISCHER: Well, I think the fact that the economy has slowed to the degree where it has even before the president took office, and then the recession that began in March of this year, is another reason why the president reminds the Congress of the need to do two things this fall. One is to pass a stimulus so the economy can get growing again and so surpluses can return, and also to be careful that they don't engage in any excess spending beyond what they're already agreed to.

Other than that, I think it'll be important to take a look at how the economy does come back next year to determine what else could be impacted as a result of this. But it is a reminder to people in Congress, it's always important to keep a watchful eye on taxpayer dollars; it's even more important now.

QUESTION: But how is it possible in the near term to satisfy the campaign promises with regard to spending when the money isn't there anymore?

FLEISCHER: Well, in terms of the promises the president made -- if you want to offer a specific promise, I'll be happy to talk about it issue by issue. But the president...

QUESTION: Well, I named a couple so why don't you go through them? Social Security reform, prescription drugs.

FLEISCHER: Social Security reform, as you know, is a very long- term commitment on Social Security. That's a matter where the president has said that he believes very strongly that personal savings accounts are a very important way to help protect Social Security for today's retirees but allow younger workers, who we are really talking about here, to have a chance to have a retirement system that's there.

QUESTION: What's the policy with this...

FLEISCHER: But that's a long-term funding issue.

QUESTION: But it's a long-term problem, according to Director Daniels. He doesn't see surpluses returning til '05.

FLEISCHER: And the duration of that will be determined mostly by the shape of the economy, and that's why the president thinks, first things first, the most important thing that can happen this fall is for a stimulus to get passed.

On Medicare prescription drugs, the president will continue to work with Congress on that topic. But, clearly, anything dealing with large spending increases, particularly creation of new entitlements, has to be done with an eye toward what is achievable.

QUESTION: Senator Daschle says that tax cuts are to blame for this, specifically.

FLEISCHER: Well, you know, let's just walk through the numbers. When President Bush took office, the budget, in February of this year, projected a surplus of $281 billion. We now know that the fiscal year -- that's for '01. The fiscal year is now over and the surplus for the year was $127 billion. In other words, the surplus dropped by $154 billion this year. The tax cut this year was $40 billion. So, obviously, the tax cut had nothing to do with all the drop in the surplus. In fact, the tax cut is one of the reasons that people think the economy is going to come back. But the fact that the surplus dropped by $154 billion, while the tax cut was $40 billion, indicates there was something else going on. That something else we now know is a recession, is the slowing down in the economy.

FLEISCHER: And as the president said repeatedly throughout the campaign and he reiterates today, the solution is through growth, and growth is achieved by cutting taxes and stimulating the economy. QUESTION: You've been answering his first question about prescription drugs, you said anything dealing with large spending increases, you have to do with an eye toward what is achievable. His question was, is your prescription drug plan achievable?

FLEISCHER: Well, again, there's something that the president has sent up in his principles to the Hill that includes prescription drug coverage for seniors. It has not moved this fall, obviously, on the Hill. And it's a little early to predict what the congressional agenda will be like next year. But, obviously, in an era of tight surpluses, people have to keep an eye on spending, but it remains an important priority for the president to help senior citizens get affordable prescription drug coverage.

Along that point, there was an interesting court ruling recently with the prescription drug discount card that the president proposed. If you recall, there was an original court case from which -- throughout the president's proposal -- because it said the procedures had not been followed. The judge has now come back on that issue and the procedures are now being implemented under the judge's authority to allow the development of the prescription drug card, which could help seniors get discounts on their cards. There are a few more steps still to be taken, but that is an encouraging development for seniors, so they can get reduction on the cost of prescription drugs.

QUESTION: The Democrats have been rather critical of the White House on economic policy in the last 24 hours, even while the negotiations over spending were going forward. Congressman Gephardt was saying that the president is mismanaging the economy, and that you've talked about the tax cuts responsible for the recession. Senator Daschle says Republicans simply don't want to negotiate on an economic stimulus. What is your response to those charges? And where do you see the economic stimulus talks now? Where are they, what are the prospects?

FLEISCHER: Couple of points: I think that accusations like that are what make the American people tired of how business gets done in Washington. People expect leaders to come to Washington and not to point fingers at each other, but to work together to solve problems. And that's why the president has engaged with the Senate to help the Senate to deal what the Senate is wrestling with and having difficulty, which is coming to agreement by themselves on a stimulus package.

Last night, Chief of Staff Card, Secretary of the Treasury O'Neill went up to Capitol Hill to meet with House and Senate leaders, as well as the tax writers, to help the Senate to complete its work. And the president remains very hopeful that the Senate will be able to pass a stimulus package.

But, you know, I guess, for many a year that's the way business has been done in Washington, finger-pointing and blaming.

FLEISCHER: That won't stop the president from working with the Congress to try to get a stimulus passed.

QUESTION: Why doesn't the president think corporations...

FLEISCHER: Did you have a follow-up?


FLEISCHER: Go ahead.

QUESTION: So to what extent does that complicate the talks on economic stimulus? Yesterday Senator Daschle was suggesting that agreement could be made within a couple of days. But today Democrats seem to be suggesting that the president's mismanaging the economy and one might assume mismanaging the efforts to revive the economy.

FLEISCHER: Well, you know, I think the president will just continue to do what he was elected to do, which was to get the economy -- to keep the economy strong and to focus on his agenda. So I think the president will arise above and do what the people elected him to do. You know, this is part of the old Washington where people engage in name-calling as opposed to problem-solving.

QUESTION: Is that tone reflected in the talks over economic stimulus or is it a different tone in this conference?

FLEISCHER: Well, I think the talks on economic stimulus that are going on in the Senate right now are aimed at resolving it. That certainly is what Senator Daschle pledged to the president when Senator Daschle was here, and I think the president can't imagine a circumstance where Senator Daschle would do anything other than what he told the president.

QUESTION: Why doesn't the president think that corporations should pay any taxes?

FLEISCHER: That's not what the president believes.

QUESTION: Well, what does he believe? He does want to eliminate taxes for the corporations, doesn't he?

FLEISCHER: No. The president believes corporations need to pay taxes.

QUESTION: A minimum tax? FLEISCHER: There is an element to the tax code called the alternative minimum tax which, by its definition, alternative, means that they are paying taxes. It's a different way the taxes get calculated under the code. And the president does not believe that businesses should be penalized for the investments they make where, unlike anybody else, the tax code allows you to make deductions and encourages you to invest in plans and equipment, and if you invest in what the tax code suggests you get a deduction.

The president does not think that corporations should be punished for the investments they make, which is what the alternative minimum tax does.

FLEISCHER: So the president believes that the corporate alternative minimum tax should be repealed. That doesn't mean corporations won't pay taxes -- they still will. And you asked us the other day, Helen...

QUESTION: (OFF-MIKE) get rebates.

FLEISCHER: I'm sorry?

QUESTION: He also believes they should get rebates.

FLEISCHER: Actually, under the corporate alternative minimum tax, corporations do receive credits for the amount of taxes they pay once they have reached the level of which their taxes are reduced as a result of the minimum tax. Under the current law, corporations are entitled to those credits. So the question that is under consideration in the Congress is after the corporate alternative minimum tax is abolished, what happens to the credits that those corporations have already been promised and are due as a result of the law?

And yesterday, or two days ago, Helen, you asked a question about why does the tax bill contain more tax cuts for corporations than it does for individuals. Here are the numbers on what the House passed for example, which demonstrates what I indicate to you, that the majority of the taxes go to individuals.

According to what the House passed, which was close to what the president requested, but not an identical match, there's a reduction of $25 billion in taxes over years for expensing, $24 billion for the corporate alternative minimum tax, $21 billion for a provision called sub-part F (ph) which affects corporations, and $86 billion over 10 years for individual income tax cuts. So the reason I walked through the numbers is the majority of the tax cut clearly goes to individuals under what the House passed, even more so than what the president proposed.

QUESTION: Ari, there are reports that Abd Al Omar Rahman (ph), whose supposedly an associate of Osama bin Laden, the son of the blind sheikh, Rahman, convicted of terrorism in the New York, has been captured in Afghanistan, and interrogated by American officials. Can you confirm any of that?

BOUCHER: Yes, I have nothing for you on that topic.

QUESTION: Are there any preparations under way in Guam for the establishment of the holding of military tribunals -- the prospective military tribunals?

BOUCHER: No, there are not.

QUESTION: And finally, what criteria will the president use in his identification and selection of individuals for trial by military commission?

BOUCHER: Under the military order that the president signed, which would allow in circumstances which the president thinks are necessary for national security purposes, the trial of non-Americans who are believed to be involved in terrorism or in the war in Afghanistan, under a military tribunal -- the president will make the designation about who would be subject to a military tribunal. He will make that determination on the basis of what he believes is in the national security interest.

QUESTION: It's very broad.

BOUCHER: It is very broad.

QUESTION: And whatever he thinks is necessary...

FLEISCHER: Under the law and under the Supreme Court precedents, the president has that authority. And the president has said that he has reserved to himself, as opposed to designated it -- delegating it to the secretary of defense or to any other officials, that responsibility.

QUESTION: Case by case?

FLEISCHER: That's correct. Case by case.

QUESTION: Ari, on the announcement by the attorney general offering new immigration incentives to encourage people to turn in information, can't this be viewed in some way as selling U.S. visas and citizenship in exchange for information?

FLEISCHER: Actuality, this is an existing program that is already under the law in terms of, I think it's referred to as S visas. And the attorney general announced a beefing-up of the program and reminding people that this is an existing program, we can do more with it, to help protect people in this country. And so immigrants who come to this country can enjoy their life in America, can enjoy the freedom of America as they play a role in helping protect themselves and other citizens in this country from terror.

QUESTION: What is the genesis of it? Was there, sort of, a sense that a lot of people weren't coming forward out of concerns that the attorney general is learning about?

FLEISCHER: I think the program exists out of a wise recognition that there are people who may have information about others who are involved in crimes or activities and they believe it's their civic responsibility and duty to help and pass that information along so justice can be served.

It's not uncommon for governments, in this case the United States government, to have an incentive or a reward program to help people to take such a step. You've seen that often. There are similar programs that exist where people who provide information that leads to the arrest or the conviction are eligible for rewards. This is a program that exists to help people who are coming to America in terms of their visa status so they can enjoy more of the rights and the privileges of America, and that's why.

QUESTION: So people who have broken the law, immigration law, would get a, kind of, amnesty if they trade information on terrorists. FLEISCHER: No. When the attorney general was asked that earlier he indicated it's not an amnesty, but there are ways under existing programs with the S visa for citizens to enjoy more of the freedoms and the liberties of America under the terms of a visa, even though they're not citizens, as a result of any information that they may share -- that they decide to voluntarily come forward and share, because they think it's their civic responsibility to help protect Americans from crimes they may be aware of.

QUESTION: But wouldn't it be possible that someone could be in the United States illegally and then turn in information to the FBI and then be given the opportunity to stay in the United States?

FLEISCHER: Again, I think you need to ask the Department of Justice how they would adjudicate any individual incidents of somebody bringing information forward and what that person's status is as they bring the information forward. I believe the Department of Justice will tell you that it will be a case-by-case determination.

QUESTION: Ari, since this was an existing program, why now? Why do we have this timing? For instance, why didn't we hear about this when -- you know, shortly after some of the suspects were being rounded up? Is it an indication, for instance, that investigation is not going as well...

FLEISCHER: No. I think it's another sign that the government is continuing to take steps that it deems helpful and appropriate to catch people or to prevent people from engaging in terrorism or other crimes in the United States.

You know, I remind you of similar things were done with the reward money that you've heard about for information that will lead to the arrest or conviction of Osama bin Laden or the capture of Osama bin Laden and his top lieutenants. It's not uncommon to have such programs. And the fact of the matter is, people respond to them. The fact of the matter is, the more information that is conveyed about them, the more people hear about them -- the show, "America's Most Wanted," for example, often people call up, because they think it's part of their civic duty and it's a healthy part of involving more Americans, and non-citizens as well, into helping protect this country. Often people are aware of information and they think it's their responsibility to pass it along. The government is going to help people to pass it along.

QUESTION: People continue, at least civil rights groups, continue to criticize John Ashcroft for many of the measures that he's taking, claiming he's violating a lot of the justice precepts of this country. Is the president in full agreement with everything John Ashcroft has done in this regard since September 11? And will the president use his speech today to the attorneys general to defend John Ashcroft's policies?

FLEISCHER: Well, I don't even think it's a question of defending anybody; there's no need to defend someone who's doing such an excellent job. And the president thinks that the attorney general is doing an excellent job. The president believes that as a result of the actions of the attorney general, that terrorist activity is being disrupted and that the attorney general is protecting America and America's citizens, as well as all the visitors who come to our country to enjoy our freedoms. So the president is very pleased with the activities of the attorney general.

And you talked about people are raising objections, as is their right. It is absolutely their right. And the actions that the attorney general are taking are designed to protect their right, even as they represent a minority of Americans who are questioning the attorney general's activities. It is their right and their duty to express their objections.

FLEISCHER: And the majority agrees with what the president and the attorney general are doing, and they are doing it so the rights of the minority who objects can be protected.

QUESTION: Is it OK to violate civil rights, though -- violate people's civil rights to protect other people?

FLEISCHER: No, and that is not the case, that has not been done.

QUESTION: But Ashcroft this morning said that, you know, no one has filed a lawsuit against the violation of civil rights, basically saying that he knows civil rights are being violated for those being detained in reference to 9/11.

FLEISCHER: I went back and looked at the attorney general's remarks on the TV show you mentioned this morning after you raised that question earlier, and the attorney general did not say what you said he said. The attorney general made note of the fact that no suits have been filed, but he did not say, as you indicated, that rights have been violated. He said just the opposite. He said this is all in accord...


FLEISCHER: No, I don't think that's a fair characterization of what he said.

QUESTION: You know, a lot of people criticizing John Ashcroft belong to the Democratic Party. Do you think there's any politics involved or do you think...

FLEISCHER: I think these are people's principled views and their heartfelt views. I also submit to you that they represent a minority, and that is their right. And the actions the attorney general has taken are designed to protect all Americans, regardless of their views.

And, you know, on the question of the military tribunals, you know, as the Department of Defense appropriations bill was debated yesterday there was a Democratic congressman from Ohio, Congressman Kucinich, who was prepared to offer an amendment which prevented the use of any money for the creation of military tribunals. He actually filed his amendment with the House Rules Committee to put it to a vote. The Democrats asked him not to put it to a vote because they knew that if it was put to a vote it would lose in an overwhelming bipartisan display.

So I submit to you that if there was such widespread opposition to what the president was doing you might see a test vote in the Congress, and there's a reason that no test votes have been taken: It's because a bipartisan majority of the Congress supports what the president has done; so, too, the American people.

QUESTION: Ari, if I could follow up on two things you said, when you said that there was an existing program, the S visa program, just to clarify on that, under the existing program does one receive favorable treatment for being on the path to a green card or other immigration status, which has got a very clear set of criteria, if you give information helpful to the government in a criminal investigation? Is that what you're suggesting?

FLEISCHER: The Department of Justice can provide you with the exact details on how the programs work, but there are existing programs, and I've walked you through a couple of them.

QUESTION: OK. And I have a follow-up on one other, which is Helen's question on corporate taxes. You said the president is in favor of there being some corporate taxes. Does this put him in opposition to his treasury secretary who has said many times on the record that he believes that corporate taxes are unwise because they're simply passed along to consumers?

FLEISCHER: I think in the realm of theology that's a consistent statement. There are many economists who believe that corporate taxes are passed on to consumers. But the administration has made no changes -- has proposed no changes in the corporate income tax rate which remains at 34 percent.

QUESTION: Tell us about the resumption of mail here at the White House. Is that going to happen...

FLEISCHER: As you recall, there was an interruption of the mail service to the White House, and I'm pleased to report that that interruption is coming to an end. The mail service to the White House will resume as soon as tomorrow.



QUESTION: Does that mean that precautions have been taken and you're satisfied with it?

FLEISCHER: That's correct.

QUESTION: Ari, on the IDEA of the individual -- disabilities act being a part of the education act, the president had said when he was running for office that he would work with Congress to fully fund it. It's not fully funded. Is the president still trying to work with Congress to fully fund it?

FLEISCHER: In the speech that the president gave up in Maine where he announced a disability initiative in the amount of $2,000, the president talked about the IDEA program, which is a program designed to help the disabled community and the education community. Full funding is a issue that the president discussed and Congress has, for years, discussed full funding and has never been able to fully fund the program.

I'm not aware of any discussion right now that it will be fully funded, but the president has always indicated support for the program, but he has also said that it needs to be reformed on the path to better funding.

QUESTION: On the international conference in Bonn, does the White House expect women to play a major role in the Afghan coalition government? And if they're not included, will U.S. aid be cut?

FLEISCHER: Well, the talks are under way in Bonn and progress is being made on the creation of a future government of Afghanistan. I think there's going to be -- the process is going to continue. No one is looking for an immediate solution and it's a fluid series of discussions about the future government of Afghanistan.

The American position has been made abundantly clear, and that is that the government of Afghanistan should be a multi-ethnic government that represents all the people; the Pashtuns, as well as the others in Afghanistan, and it must include a role for women.

FLEISCHER: But fundamentally, it is a matter that the Afghani people have to decide.

QUESTION: Ari, back on the subject of the responsible cooperator program that the attorney general announced today. Does it not make the administration uncomfortable to be promulgating a program that bears at least passing similarity to what totalitarian societies like East Germany and the Soviet Union used to do, which is to say to people, "Turn informant and you get rewarded"?

FLEISCHER: No, again, I think the notion of suggesting a moral equivalence between those people who come to our shores to take advantage of liberty and freedom and understanding that they want to provide information to a freedom-loving government so that people who seek to violate the rights of others can be captured, is somehow morally equivalent to the actions of a Nazi or totalitarian state is a question whose premise I'll never accept.

QUESTION: But isn't the essential bargain the same: turn informant, get rewarded?

FLEISCHER: Absolutely not. The essential bargain is only the same if you believe in moral equivalence between totalitarian governments and the government of the United States, and I don't.

QUESTION: So your suggesting that it's somehow morally superior if we do it here?

FLEISCHER: I think the people here understand that when they help to catch people who are committing crimes, they help to protect freedom.

QUESTION: Ari, the Egyptian prime minister today apparently raised with Secretary of State Powell some concerns about possible U.S. action on Iraq. Does the president feel his ability to take whatever action he might feel is needed on Iraq is constrained by the hesitation of some our Arab allies?

FLEISCHER: Well, I think that there's no way to answer that question without getting into anything that is premature. The president is focused on phase one of this war against terrorism, and that is undergoing in Afghanistan. The president has made his statements about -- he said this in a speech to the nation on September 20, that in the war against terrorism, you're either with freedom or you're against freedom. And nothing has changed the president's view on that. QUESTION: Ari, on the economy again, in the wake of the Mitch Daniels projections, does the president think that an economic stimulus package could possibly turn those deficits into surpluses again by the end of his term?

FLEISCHER: Well, I'm not going to predict any timing, because there are too many vagaries in economics to predict timing. There are professional economist who try to do that, and sometimes they're right and sometimes they're wrong.

But the president does believe strongly, as you heard him say in the Rose Garden this week, that he supports a package that is stimulative for the economy, and that's what he's urging the Senate to pass. He understands there's always a temptation in Congress to put things in a bill to buy votes, to have increase spending for one pet project or pork project or another, but the president does not think those things stimulate the economy. He wants to have a bill passed that is helpful to the economy.

The provisions that the president is asking the Congress to pass are an acceleration of the individual income tax rate cuts, a tax cut for low- and middle-income Americans, increased expensing for businesses to invest in plant and equipment, and an end what he believes is a counterproductive corporate alternative minimum tax.

QUESTION: Do you think that those numbers might be able to be turned around or...

FLEISCHER: Well, I'll refer you to the estimates of private sector forecasters, who have stated in their growth projections for next year that in the absence of a stimulus there will be less growth next year. Most private sector forecasters believe that the economy will turn around next year.

Again, the slowdown begin in the summer of 2000, GDP in the spring of 2000, exceeded 5 percent. It slowed down to the 2 percent range in the summer of 2000, and the fall of 2000 it dropped into the 1 percent range and it stayed there right until the recession began, some 40 days after President Bush took office. So by the time the president took office, the economy had been in a long slowdown. The recession began in March. And private sector forecasters believe that we will come out of it next year, but without a stimulus, they think we won't come out of it as fast.

QUESTION: Could I follow on that, Ari? As I understand it, OMB is not actually issuing new projections that say we're likely to have deficits for three years. Mitch was simply saying, the way it looks we're not going to have a surplus again for two maybe three years. And these are not official projections, this is not an official set of numbers including assumptions about economic growth.

FLEISCHER: That's a good point. The speech that Director Daniels gave was a speech to the Press Club yesterday, in which he stated that he thought that would be the case. The projections from the Office of Management and Budget that will have additional numbers will not be available until early next year. He was stating what the economy looks like at this time.

QUESTION: Historically, most recessions have lasted 11 months or so, and we now know that this one began in March, meaning measuring against historical trends, we're nearly out of it. Does that undercut your argument for the urgency or the urgent need for the stimulus?

FLEISCHER: No, because of the point I just made about private sector forecasters believe that we will come out of recession next year. There is slow growth, there is almost no growth and then there is strong growth. Jobs are created through strong growth; surpluses are returned through strong growth. But if the economy only comes back at 2 percent, it's not very strong growth.

In the absence of a stimulus package, there's a strong possibility, according to private sector forecasters, that the economy will come back only with low to perhaps moderate growth. The president would like to see strong growth, that way more jobs can get created, surpluses are returned, and a stimulus can be instrumental in achieving that goal.

QUESTION: The speech yesterday that Mitch Daniels gave, I trust that the gist of it he told the president ahead of time, so it's not likely that we're going to get back in the black before the first term is over with. Was the president troubled by that talk?

FLEISCHER: I think the president, at all times, appreciates candor and speaking forthrightly with the American people. If you remember, you know, Larry Lindsey said in the summer that he foresaw the unemployment rate rising to some 5 percent.

FLEISCHER: The administration has not hesitated to speak candidly about the facts and the figures. And I think, frankly, the American people welcome it; they want to know what the facts are, and that's what the administration has done.

QUESTION: Is he troubled by the notion that there might be red ink for as far as the eye can see before he has to meet the voters?

FLEISCHER: The president is troubled by the fact that the economy has slowed down. The president is troubled by the fact that we're in recession. The president will be even more troubled if the Senate doesn't do anything about it.

QUESTION: Ari, is the administration trying to do anything to prevent Enron from slipping into bankruptcy and putting 20,000 people out of work? And also, has the president or anyone else in the administration been in touch with Enron Chairman Ken Lay, who was a big contributor of the president and supporter?

FLEISCHER: On your second question, I don't know the answer to that. On the first question, as I indicated yesterday, the Treasury Department and others are monitoring...

WOODRUFF: We are leaving the White House briefing, and we apologize for that, but we do want to hear what the Attorney General John Ashcroft has to say, announcing a new incentive plan to get information from immigrants.




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