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White House Press Briefing

Aired December 5, 2001 - 12:05   ET


WOLF BLITZER, CNN ANCHOR: Let's go over to the White House. Ari Fleischer, the press secretary, is briefing reporters.


ARI FLEISCHER, WHITE HOUSE PRESS SECRETARY: He urged the Congress to continue to work together so that an economic stimulus package could be approved by the Congress, that would be signed this year, he hopes, so that we can help America's unemployed workers.

Following the breakfast, the president met with the CIA for his intelligence briefing, met with the FBI for an update on the domestic front, and then he convened a meeting of the National Security Council.

Throughout the afternoon, the president will meet with members of Congress on Trade Promotion Authority. The House of Representatives is scheduled to take a very important vote tomorrow on whether or not President Bush will have the authority to enter into trade agreements around the world.

The president urges members of Congress to vote for that. It will be a very interesting vote, to see whether or not Congress, or the House, will go along.

The president also early this afternoon will have an event in the Oval Office where he will announce a new chairman of the Republican National Committee.

And the president will meet with the prime minister of Norway this afternoon to discuss cooperation in the war on terrorism.

And one update, as a result of the action the president took yesterday in the fight against international terrorism on the financial front, I want to report to you this morning that over $5 million has been blocked in assets belonging to the Holy Land Foundation. And as a result of the freezes and blocking orders the president has implemented on the financial front worldwide against the war on terrorism, more than $61 million has been either frozen or blocked around the world.

QUESTION: Ari, what makes the president -- I'm taking note of his wide-swinging threats in speeches recently -- what makes him think that he has the right to go into a sovereign country and bomb her people?

FLEISCHER: His threats?

QUESTION: Any country -- yes.

FLEISCHER: Would you like to be more specific?


QUESTION: ... well beyond Afghanistan or anywhere else.

FLEISCHER: The president has made it clear to the American people that the United States, in the wake of an attack on our country, will defend itself.

And as a result of defending ourselves, you can see what is happening in Afghanistan. The president has said that this is a war against terrorism because terrorists continue to pose a threat to the United States and to others around the world and that he is involved in phase one of defending this country against terrorists, and he will continue to do so.

QUESTION: What gives him the authority to go into other countries and bomb them...

FLEISCHER: The right...

QUESTION: ... which is what he is threatening to do?

FLEISCHER: The right, as the commander-in-chief, to protect and defend the American people.

QUESTION: Ari, what's the White House reaction to the agreement signed in Bonn by the parties who have been negotiating a future for the Afghan government? Does it meet the standards that the White House has set out, broadbased, specifically as far as women involved?

FLEISCHER: The president is very pleased with the agreement that's been reached in Bonn concerning the future of the Afghanistan government. He believes it is a positive agreement that bodes well for the people of Afghanistan.

This vote will allow the people of Afghanistan to take their -- this development -- will allow the people of Afghanistan to take their country back, and the president is very pleased by that. He's pleased by the multiethnic nature of the agreement. He's pleased by the role that women will play in the future government of Afghanistan. He wants to express his congratulations and praise to Secretary General Annan, as well as to Ambassador Brahimi, for their hard work in delivering this accord. But much more work remains ahead.

This is an important development in the future Afghanistan, but it's only, in many ways, the beginning. A lot of hard work remains for Afghanistan now to have a stable government that represents and respects the people of Afghanistan. It still will be difficult because Afghanistan is still a nation that is in the middle of a war. QUESTION: Ari, on the Middle East, since last weekend's suicide bombings has Yasser Arafat done anything to impress the president that, in fact, he is making a commitment to peace and to rooting out terrorists?

FLEISCHER: I think if you listened to what the president said yesterday, and now it's about some 16 hours after what he said, it's too soon to say. The president will keep a very close eye on events in the Middle East and on the actions that Chairman Arafat takes to make certain that Chairman Arafat is dedicated to the cause of peace and to making sure that he takes action against the terrorists who are challenging not only the security of Israel, but the authority of Chairman Arafat.

QUESTION: Well, what's the timetable here because -- I mean, day after day, the president keeps calling on him to do something. I wondering, you know, when the timetable -- when the deadline is for Yasser Arafat.

FLEISCHER: The president has not established it in such a manner. I think that, as always, the president wants to allow events to develop over time in a way that he hopes will be fruitful to convincing the parties in the Middle East that their best interest is to work together; Chairman Arafat and Israel, to forge meaningful peace.

And one of the best tests of that will be to see whether Chairman Arafat will take meaningful, long-term, enduring action against the terrorists who are operating out of Palestinian territory.


QUESTION: ... peace process is dead, is it not, in the president's mind?

FLEISCHER: No, I think you heard the president address that yesterday when he said he has a dream that peace will be achieved in the Middle East. And as I indicated earlier, the Middle East has historically been a cycle between violence and hope, and even in the midst of the violence the president has not given up hope, and he will remain committed to achieving peace.

QUESTION: What has President Bush been told about the death of the two Americans in Afghanistan under friendly fire this morning, and how it happen?

FLEISCHER: Upon his arrival into the White House shortly before 7:00 this morning the president was informed about the deaths of the Americans and the injuries in Afghanistan that affected people of Afghanistan as well. And the president offers his condolences to the families and the loved ones of those who have been killed, and he regrets the loss of life very much and also wishes that the injured will have a full and speedy recovery.


FLEISCHER: The Department of Defense will have more information about any of the specifics, and I'll refer you over to DOD on it.

QUESTION: What do you think your chance are on the trade vote tomorrow?

FLEISCHER: I think it's risky business always to predict what a congressional vote will be. It has historically been an uphill fight, at least over the last some 10 years, for the president to be given this authority. The president thinks it is crucial that he be given the authority to enter into trade agreements around the world, one, to help protect the economy long term; but two, to help other nations around the world so they have opportunities to grow and prosper.

QUESTION: The people he's meeting today, are they leaners, or have do you see them?

FLEISCHER: They fall into a variety of categories. Clearly, he won't meet with people whose minds are already made up and there's no use talking to them. So the president's going to meet with people where he thinks it can make a difference.

I can report to you that the president has held, prior to day, and not including yesterday's flight, six meetings with members of Congress exclusively on the topic of trade promotion authority. He's met with 41 members of the House, eight members of the Senate, 19 Republicans and 30 Democrats.

QUESTION: Are those large meetings or one-on-ones or...

FLEISCHER: Variety of forums.

QUESTION: He been on the phone with them...


FLEISCHER: The president may be making some phone calls.


QUESTION: ... over the last six months...

FLEISCHER: Yes, if you recall, in anticipation of this, because the president is such a dedicated believer in the importance of free trade, the president over the summer started having meetings with members of Congress to talk about trade promotion authority. He had a few additional ones. And now, of course, on the eve of a major vote, the efforts are accelerating.

QUESTION: So this is over that whole period?

FLEISCHER: That's correct.

QUESTION: Has the president talked to Sharon or Admiral Zinni? What has been the president's activity in terms of the Mideast?

FLEISCHER: Well, as you know, the president met directly with Prime Minister Sharon here at the White House on Sunday. No, to my knowledge, the president has not had any additional conversations.


QUESTION: ... a chance to look at this new proposal by Chairman Thomas that provide additional assistance to workers who lose their jobs...

FLEISCHER: TAA? The president is aware of the proposal by Chairman Thomas. And the president is hopeful that a result of a series of conversations that are taking place that members of Congress will agree to grant the president the authority to enter into trade agreements around the world.

QUESTION: Does he support the Thomas proposal?

FLEISCHER: Well, the president does believe in TAA, the program of Trade Adjustment Assistance. He thinks it is a very helpful way to help people, who in individual sectors might lose their jobs as a result of trade agreements.

Having said that, the president, as you know, believes that trade agreements create a net increase in jobs. But the president supports the program. The president hopes that the negotiations and discussions will be successful.

QUESTION: Ari, Chairman Arafat is saying that he can't get General Zinni to return any calls to him. Are you aware of that? Has that been the directive...

FLEISCHER: That he can't -- I refer you to the State Department.

QUESTION: Ari, in light of the Army's decision to reverse itself on (inaudible) can you tell us how and when the president was advised of that situation? And also, the president's thoughts on that?

FLEISCHER: Yes. As I indicated this morning, this is a matter for the Department of Defense, the Department of Army specifically. And I don't have anything beyond that.

QUESTION: Do you know if the president was at least aware of it?

FLEISCHER: As I said, I don't have anything beyond that.

QUESTION: Ari, why do we have to be referred to the State Department on that? I mean...


QUESTION: Can't we know if the administration is having conversations with Yasser Arafat?

FLEISCHER: Because I think you'll get a -- well, if you ask me if the president, I can report to you that the president has not. If you ask about Ambassador Zinni...

(CROSSTALK) QUESTION: Everybody around knows, don't they?

FLEISCHER: Well, I don't have a phone list of everything that Zinni is doing in the Mideast.


FLEISCHER: His direct report is to the State Department, which is why I said refer you to the State Department people.



QUESTION: I'm asking you as the president's spokesman why you can't comment on whether the administration has contact with Yasser Arafat when they're in the middle of a war over there?

FLEISCHER: Well, if you ask me about the president, I'll give you that answer.

QUESTION: Following up on this situation at Arlington, we just spoke with the spokesman for the Army secretary, who says that there has been no reversal, that they can bury this man in an existing family plot, but not in a separate grave, as his family has requested. What are the prospects that the president might get involved and overrule this?

FLEISCHER: Well, again, this is a matter for the Department of Defense, the Department of Army.

If there's anything further to be added to it, you will know from the White House.

But these are always very sensitive and difficult matters. Arlington National Cemetery is the final resting place where countless numbers of Americans want to be buried. Arlington National Cemetery is also a place that is running out of space. It makes for some of the most difficult, emotional issues for the families of loved ones who've been lost in any type of military or any type of action, having served in the military, also with a nation that wants to honor its promises to people who will be able to be buried into Arlington in the future.

It is always an very emotional and difficult issue. And the military has very stringent that they try to comply with because it makes it easier for everybody to understand what the criteria are. So that's why the Department of Army is the one who is charged with this. They worked very hard at it, and they understand the sensitivities involved.

QUESTION: Should we take the initial part of your response as an indication that the president might get involved?

FLEISCHER: No, I just said to you -- you asked me, and I told -- you know where it stands, that the Department of Army made the announcement it made this morning, and that's where it stands.

QUESTION: Follow up on Ken's question and the point he was making on the Middle East, why can't you tell us as a White House spokesman what, if any, contact White House officials...


QUESTION: ... this issue with the Department of Army?

FLEISCHER: I thought you were asking about, again, Zinni and Arafat.

With the Department of Army?

QUESTION: Could you tell us what contact...

FLEISCHER: I'm not aware of any. If I had something to report, I would report it.

QUESTION: Can you check and see whether or not there has been any contact with the White House...

FLEISCHER: Yes, I raised it this morning, and I had nothing to advise you of. If I had something to advise you of involving the president or the White House involvement in this case at Arlington, I would advise you of it. There's nothing that I've been made aware of.

QUESTION: Two things, real quick. On Ann's (ph) question, is the president planning or has he talked to the families of those soldiers who were killed?

FLEISCHER: I'll try to let you know. As you know, the president's habit has been to send notes to the families, but if there is anything, I'll let you know.

QUESTION: Ari, the second question, quickly, the president, since September 11, has shown extreme patriotism, brandishing his flag, talking about this country, the love of this country. What are his thoughts about the American who has fought for the Taliban and his patriotism?

FLEISCHER: Well, the president's first thought is that we need to collect the facts about what has taken place.

But I think, until then, the president hasn't really entered into the realm of conjecture. I think that -- I would just leave it right there until the facts can be ascertained about, if it's all true, what we've read, and why somebody may have done this, but beyond that, I don't think it's fair to speculate.

QUESTION: But from the initial facts, is it treason?

FLEISCHER: I think Secretary Rumsfeld was asked that question yesterday, and I'm not going to go beyond what he said.

QUESTION: (OFF-MIKE) the White House? What do you say? FLEISCHER: This is a matter for the people who are involved to ask the appropriate questions, to gather the appropriate information. It's not a time for people in the government to guess or to speculate. These are important matters.

QUESTION: But he's fighting against the American government, basically.

FLEISCHER: I understand.

QUESTION: Ari, after the breakfast, Speaker Hastert and Leader Gephardt both said that they believe Congress is right to engage in a broad investigation of Enron, and both said that they were opened to the idea of having some remedial legislation drafted to protect shareholders such as those of Enron's, who were affected when their 401(k)s were frozen as the stock value of the company plummeted.

Question one, does the White House support any kind of inquiry into legislation like that? And two, Mr. Gephardt said the entire Enron situation raises questions anew about the president's ideas about privatizing even partially Social Security because assets held in those funds are subject to all sorts of market pressures; they could disappear overnight. And the Enron situation adds more evidence to the Democrats' complaint that you simply cannot and should not privatize Social Security. Your reaction?

FLEISCHER: OK. On the two points. On the first point, as you know, right from the beginning, I announced that the Department of Treasury and other government agencies are monitoring the events in the wake of the announcement about Enron, and since I said that, Enron, of course, has filed for bankruptcy.

You may want to talk to the Department of Labor. The Department of Labor has jurisdiction over pension issues. It is not uncommon for the Department of Labor, in a time like this, to keep a watchful eye over people's pensions to make sure that any consequences are fairly and adequately dealt with. So they are the agency that would be involved. They have their own criteria to determine whether or not they have any type of investigation. The president wants to make certain that all agencies are monitoring events and will take action as their criteria warrant.

On the second point about markets, you know, one of the things about our country is that, unfortunately, we can be a land of haves and have nots, and one of the things that distinguishes the have nots and the haves is the haves have access to ownership of stock and mutual funds, and therefore, they have a little piece of a rock that can grow and allow them to enjoy more wealth and a better life.

There are many people in society who would like to have access to markets so that way they can accumulate wealth. And often, they can't. Social Security is one of the reasons they can't. Young people have all this money taken out of their paychecks, and often they do not receive any return on it. Specifically, people who are young today pay taxes for a system that is scheduled to go broke before they have any return. So one of the ways the president sees as helping workers who are low-income is to allow them to have the same market access that upper- income and middle-income people have so they, too, can accumulate wealth.

QUESTION: Yesterday the president and Secretary O'Neill went out of their way to talk about Hamas as a terrorist group with global reach. Is that the first time that that definition has been applied to a Palestinian group? And secondly, this was the first time the president had acted against a group not associated with Al Qaeda. What significance should we attach to that?

FLEISCHER: On the first point, I couldn't tell you if that's the first time. I think you'd have to take a review of that and see what you -- I can't tell you from everybody and every branch of the government if people have ever used such language.

But as you know, Hamas was added to the executive order that the president issued on November 2, allowing the United States to block or to freeze the assets of groups. The announcement yesterday was on top of that, it was built on the foundation of his November 2nd announcement. And I think it shows the world that the president is sincere and will act when he says that this is a multifront war, and financing of terrorist organizations is one of the fronts that which the United States and others will actively engage.

QUESTION: (OFF-MIKE) war on terrorism, he used terrorist groups as a global reach to apply specifically to Al Qaeda and as part of the rational for going after these groups militarily if necessary. Should we apply the same criteria to what is now happening in the Middle East? Would the U.S., for instance, consider military action against middle eastern terrorist groups?

FLEISCHER: Again, as you know, the president has repeatedly said he's focused on phase one of the war against terrorism, and that's where I think I'll leave it.

QUESTION: Two questions on Afghanistan. Part of the agreement today, there was discussion of having some kind of U.N. force in Kabul, at least for a while. How long -- I know the president has expressed reluctance to have American forces there for long. What kind of contribution is he willing to make and with what range of time parameters? And secondly, in order to reach this agreement, were there any American commitments made on aid?

FLEISCHER: The principal contribution the United States is making is, creating an environment in which peace can take place in Afghanistan. And if there are to be any international security forces put into Afghanistan, it will only be as a result of winning a war against Al Qaeda and the destruction of the Taliban. So I think events are still somewhat fluid, involving what type of steps will come next with any international security force, you know the president is unchanged in what he has always said that the American military should be used for the purpose of fighting and winning wars. And the president has not changed his opinion on that.

QUESTION: On the aid issue, Ari.

FLEISCHER: On the -- which one?

QUESTION: On the aid issue. Were there any further commitments of American aid for Afghanistan made as part of this agreement?

FLEISCHER: Nothing that I'm aware of.



QUESTION: Democrats are still -- as far as I know -- trying to add $15 billion in spending on homeland security to the defense bill. As I understand it, Republicans, in order to stop that, may end up involving stalling the defense appropriations bill.

QUESTION: Does the president think it's worth it to end up doing that in order to keep this money -- extra money -- off of the bill?

FLEISCHER: Well, in the meeting with the members of Congress this morning, the president made it as plain as day that, if the Senate were to send the president a bill that complicates our nation's defense needs, he will veto it. And by complicate, he means if they try to attach extra spending beyond what has already been promised and agreed to by the Congress to a Defense Department appropriations bill at a time of war, the president will immediately veto it, send it back so Congress can get back to work on something that can indeed be done.

And there's also a letter that is now circulating up on Capitol Hill, that Senator Lott's office is distributing, that has a sufficient number of senators to sustain any presidential veto. So why on earth would the Senate go through this exercise when it clearly won't go anywhere, other than to delay America's national defense needs?

America is at war, and the war should not be fought on last year's budget. And that's why the president feels so strongly that Congress should send to him a defense appropriation bill that has the funding increases for the Pentagon to fight a war and that that bill should not get bogged down by other issues beyond what already has been agreed to by the Congress.

QUESTION: And you want Republicans to vote against that bill?

FLEISCHER: Well, it's yet to be attached on the floor. It passed in the committee with the extraneous spending that the president has said goes beyond how much is necessary to immediately take care of the needs we have on the homeland. So let's see what happens on the Senate floor. It's unclear yet whether or not this proposal will actually make it through the Senate floor.

But the president has sent Congress as direct a message as you can about the need to pass a defense bill that can be quickly signed into law so our troops can have the resources they need. QUESTION: In front of the Senate Judiciary Committee yesterday, Senator Hatch said that he saw an element of partisanship in the oversight hearings that are taking place over the way the Justice Department is carrying out its investigation. Does the White House share that view that partisanship is creeping to the Congress' oversight role on the investigation?

FLEISCHER: Well, the president understands very clearly and welcomes Congress' legitimate oversight of all of the activities that the executive branch engages in. That is how our Constitution is built, and the president is keenly respectful of it.

I don't think it should surprise anybody that the Senate will exercise that review, but I think the president has also noted that there've been some positive statements by many Democrats about the actions that the president has taken on the homefront, military tribunals, et cetera, to fight and win the war on terrorism.

Clearly, the American people are overwhelmingly with the president on this. But there very well may be people who represent a small minority, and they have that right to do so.

QUESTION: I'm sorry, just to follow up, do you think that there are people who that are trying to score political points against the attorney general or against the president in their criticism of his handling of the situation?

FLEISCHER: No, there very well may be, but that doesn't bother the president. He came to Washington from a very different background than many people who have been here for a while. The president came from a state government where you'll see, not only in Austin, Texas, but throughout many of the states, less partisanship, less strife, and that's the spirit that the president has been trying to bring to the Congress. I think many people accept that new spirit that's come to Washington; there may be some who won't.

QUESTION: Going back to Holy Land fundings, there are many other groups who are raising funds from this country and sending overseas, including many groups in Kashmir, funding terrorist activities. You think president is going to go now after all those groups who are raising funds from this land?

FLEISCHER: Well, yesterday's announcement was one announcement in a series of announcements the president has been making on the financial front in the war on terrorism. And I really urge you to look at this as a front in a war. And given that fact, and that's the president's approach to it, and that's the message that he has given his secretary of treasury and the government investigators and the law enforcement community, you need to look at this as an ongoing series of events designed to protect this country by drying up the money that's available to those who would do us harm or engage in terrorism around the world. So there, as the president's always said, there very well be more actions to be taken.

(CROSSTALK) QUESTION: ... the prime minister of India, when he was here at the White House and met with the president, and also the foreign minister of India, they all said that there are groups here who are funding terrorist groups in Kashmir, and they urged the president, this administration, to take action (inaudible).

FLEISCHER: And I think the president is putting groups on notice that no one is going to be safe, no one is going to immune. If they practice terrorism, the war will be brought to them on a number of fronts.

QUESTION: Ari, despite philosophical differences between Democrats and Republicans on the economic stimulus package, it's already December 5. Does the president feel he won't get (inaudible) agreement?

FLEISCHER: He just doesn't know. No one can say what Congress will do. It's up to Congress finally. The president will continue to be helpful, but obviously the Senate was not even able to pass a bill, unlike the House of Representatives, which was able to pass a stimulus bill; the Senate could not.

Now, the administration is taking the extra step of working with the Senate in a way that really is -- it's unprecedented, it's not common that one branch of the Congress passes a bill, or one house in the Congress passes a bill, the other doesn't. But the president thinks it's so important to help the economy that a new, entirely new procedure has been put in place to help the Senate to complete its work.

BLITZER: Ari Fleischer continuing to brief reporters at the White House.




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