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White House Briefing

Aired December 20, 2001 - 12:36   ET


JUDY WOODRUFF, CNN ANCHOR: From Kandahar to the White House, where Ari Fleischer has just begun the briefing.


ARI FLEISCHER, WHITE HOUSE PRESS SECRETARY: ... to take action to help other Americans so they don't lose their jobs or get left behind as well.

The president will return to the White House. And then, at 2:45 in the Rose Garden, the president will have an event where he will give a report on the first 100 days of the war against terrorism, and he will also make an announcement about action that he has taken on the financial front against other groups as part of the war against terrorism.

Two announcements for you.

The president today signed an executive order creating a presidential emergency board in the United Airlines and International Association of Mechanics and Aerospace Workers matter. The president is concerned about the economy, particularly after September 11, and the effect that airline strikes would have on the economy and on the ability of the public to travel at this time.

The president is also very concerned about the combination of an impact on the traveling public and the economy, and he urges all parties to work together to resolve their differences. But the president has signed the order creating the presidential emergency board.

And finally, the president is very pleased with the action taken in the House of Representatives this morning. He thanks the members of both parties who voted to give the economy a boost, protect workers who are working in jobs where they fear they may lose their jobs, as well as giving a helping hand to the hundreds of thousands who have lost their jobs recently.

The action taken by the House, the president believes, was very constructive. He's particularly grateful to the Democrats who voted for this measure, as well as the congressional and the House leadership.

The president hopes still that the Senate will take action. FLEISCHER: The word in the Senate is not as encouraging, but the president continues to believe it's vital for the Senate to take action to help protect the economy, to help workers so they don't lose their jobs and to give a helping hand to people who have already lost theirs.

I'd be happy to take questions.

QUESTION: On stimulus, the president has the authority to call Congress back early. The speaker suggested that he do that. Will he? (OFF-MIKE) can you tell us what that executive order does? It imposes a cooling-off period or something like that.

FLEISCHER: On the president emergency board, this is an authority the president has which kicks in a 30-day clock that allows the presidential emergency board to review the information concerning the strike or potential strike and to make recommendations on how to solve it.

There can be a second 30-day cooling-off period in which the parties have an opportunity to review the PEB's recommendations and to continue to resolve their differences. So you can look at this as a cooling-off period.

QUESTION: And then will he call Congress back early?

FLEISCHER: I think the speaker's call was specifically about the Senate. I'm aware of how he phrased it -- I think he was referring to specifically the Senate.

And you know, the president hopes it doesn't have to come to that. I can't indicate whether the president would do something like that. But the president would be very disappointed if the Senate were to go home and leave America's workers behind.

QUESTION: So he's leaving open that possibility?

FLEISCHER: That's a determination the Senate will make depending on the action, but it's up to the Senate to decide what to do. The president has not given up hope. He continues to hope that the Senate will take action.

It's just hard to imagine the Senate leaving town and leaving America's workers behind.

QUESTION: But you're leaving open the possibility that, if the Senate goes home without a bill, that he will call that Congress early?

FLEISCHER: I have not talked to the president about that. I'm aware of what the speaker said. Fundamentally, it still remains the job of the Senate leadership to complete their business.

QUESTION: Does the president see any particular urgency to make a disposition in the Walker case to accommodate the holiday schedule? FLEISCHER: I talked to the president shortly before the briefing about this matter, and the president is continuing to receive recommendations about the best course of action in regard to Mr. Walker.

FLEISCHER: The agencies have not made any final determinations. Neither has the president. And so I do not anticipate anything this week on this matter. I don't even know if anything will happen next week.

The president thinks it's important to be thorough, to be deliberative, to be judicious. More information needs to be gathered. So there's nothing imminent.


QUESTION: ... and nothing's been ruled out or in?

FLEISCHER: He hears from his advisers. He hasn't heard from all his advisers. He'll continue to hear from his advisers. But no determination has been made.

QUESTION: Do you know of reports that he has ruled out treason?

FLEISCHER: The president hasn't ruled anything in or out because no determinations have been made. And he hasn't received all the word yet from the investigators, from the advisers. So this has moved a little bit beyond what we talked about this morning. I don't anticipate anything being imminent.

QUESTION: Is that based on the recommendation of the secretary of defense, who has said, "Whoa, what are we moving so fast for?"

FLEISCHER: It's based on the entire information-gathering process.

QUESTION: And given that this is an individual American who is an extraordinary situation, what's the scale of involvement of the government in determining what the charges should be against him? Who is involved?

FLEISCHER: Well, this is an extraordinary set of circumstances, to have an American who apparently was engaged in armed combat against the United States of America. And it's in Afghanistan. And as you can imagine in anything that involves matters that are of the law, there's an information-gathering process. This information-gathering process is in Afghanistan. There are people who have to be talked to to determine what took place, there could be witnesses. So that's why it requires a lot of information gathering, and it will take the amount of time that is wise and necessary to take.

QUESTION: And can you give us a sense of the scale of the consultations that the president is engaged in? In other words, what agencies are contributing...

(CROSSTALK) FLEISCHER: This is primarily at the level of the attorney general, the Department of Justice, the Department of Defense. As you can imagine, those are the two entities that are involved in this.

Mr. Walker is being treated with his rights under the Geneva Convention, and he is a battlefield detainee, and that's why Defense and the attorney general's office are the principal advisers involved. But as the president typically does, he has a broad leadership style, he likes to listen to the ideas of his national security team, and that's what he'll do.

QUESTION: One more. Do you know if he's been Mirandized?

FLEISCHER: I do not.


QUESTION: At what point does he have a lawyer?

FLEISCHER: Under both the law and under the Constitution, in accordance with the Geneva Convention regarding the treatment of prisoners of war, military intelligence agencies may question prisoners for information that's of military value in the conduct of the war without the presence of a lawyer.

He would have a right to a lawyer if he requests one when he is held on what's called custodial interrogation by law enforcement personnel, and that's a different circumstance than where he is now under his rights under the Geneva Convention .

QUESTION: Ari, one thing on -- and I know you can't talk about if there's any determination that has not been made -- but is there some concern about treason in the sense of the legal requirements burdensome and the difficulty to prove such a charge against Walker?

FLEISCHER: I'm just not going to comment about recommendations that the president is still in the process of receiving.

In the president's opinion, the best way to handle this process is carefully, thoroughly and methodically. And that's why he will allow the investigators to complete their work in the timeframe that they think is wisest. And the president will let them do their jobs. He will listen to their advice. And at the appropriate time, you will hear from either the agencies or the people involved.

QUESTION: I know the president's father, I believe, was on ABC yesterday, and I think he spoke about a unique penalty for Walker. Something to the effect -- and I don't have the transcript in front of me -- about having (UNINTELLIGIBLE) Walker out of the United States and he could sort of see how people in this country feel. Did the president see what his father had said, and any reaction to that?

FLEISCHER: Well, since you don't have the transcript in front of me, I wouldn't want to comment on anything involving what the president's father has said.

QUESTION: Well, did the president see what his father had said...


FLEISCHER: I've not heard the president on that topic.

QUESTION: I do remember what the president said. He said that he should be forced to parade around the United States so people could see him and treat him badly, apparently. Has the president had any reaction to that, again?

FLEISCHER: Again, I have not heard the president weigh in on what the president said.

QUESTION: (OFF-MIKE) said that the president has received many recommendations, but nothing is final yet.

FLEISCHER: Correct. Well, I said the president is receiving recommendations. I don't believe I used the word many. QUESTION: So if we're talking about the Justice Department and Defense, we're talking about two recommendations here.

FLEISCHER: And I indicated, as the president typically does in his leadership style, and he'll listen to other voices on the security team as appropriate.

QUESTION: Under the Geneva Convention, a battlefield detainee apparently can receive mail. Do you have any knowledge as to whether or not he's able to receive mail?

FLEISCHER: I do not know.

QUESTION: His parents have put out a statement saying, asking America to be patient, wait for all the facts to come out. Do you have any comment on, you know, their saying that?

FLEISCHER: No, I don't. And I think what you have to understand at a time like this, too, is anything that is involving the legal course of action is not something that I'm going to be in a position to give you a minute-by-minute play-by-play. You have to allow a process to be thorough, to be deliberative and to be judicious. So I'm not going to comment on every wiggle of every report or every nook and crannie in these developments.

QUESTION: Ari, back to the stimulus, despite the president's wishes, the Senate has made it clear it intends to leave without doing the voting on the House bill. There are a couple of other pieces of legislation that aren't going to get done. Are we back to politics as usual?

FLEISCHER: Well, you know, the president certainly hopes not, and that's why he asked the secretary of the Treasury to contact the Senate leadership this morning and Chairman Baucus this morning to see if we still can't get an agreement.

The House of Representatives has reached an agreement. The House of Representatives has been able to act. The president hopes the Senate will be able to act.

I did hear this morning different senators use -- one senator used the word charade, another senator used the word dead.

In the president's opinion, the strength of the economy, and the hopes of America's workers are too important for the stimulus to be declared dead. And to the people who are unemployed or to people who may lose their jobs, this isn't a charade, this is their lives. And that's why it's so important for the Senate to act.

QUESTION: You need 12 Democrats, how many do you have now?

FLEISCHER: I don't do vote counts, but the only reason you would need 60 votes is if a senator were to throw up a parliamentary blocking tactic. That's their prerogative, they have that right. The president would hope that at a time like this, that at a time of recession, no senator would seek to do that.

QUESTION: (OFF-MIKE) phone calls?

FLEISCHER: The secretary spoke with the majority leader, and the secretary indicated a willingness to work together, to reach an agreement on the health provisions.

And then, I think the secretary was surprised to hear that now everything needs to be rediscussed. It's not just the health issues that are a source of concern in the Senate, among the Democrats. They now seem to be indicating that there's no agreement on anything.

QUESTION: That's what Daschle indicated to O'Neill (OFF-MIKE)

FLEISCHER: I think I would refer you to the appropriate offices, but that's how the conversation was brought to me -- that's correct.



QUESTION: Can I go back to Walker? I just want to clarify -- you were talking about a status as a battlefield detainee, and so, therefore, you don't have him access to a lawyer right now, but as the recommendations are made and you figure out how he's going to be tried, is it possible that his status would change, and how would that work and...

FLEISCHER: It is. Sure. If it were decided that he moved from his status as a battlefield detainee to a time where he would be held in what's called custodial interrogation, then he would of course have different legal rights.

He has legal rights under the Geneva Convention which are being fully complied with. He has legal rights as an American if he were to be put in a position of custodial interrogation.

QUESTION: Did you say that there will be no decision about Walker this week and next, or just this week? FLEISCHER: I said nothing is imminent. I do not expect anything this week.

I can't tell you there will be anything next week. It's possible that it will be after that even.

QUESTION: Has there been any decisions made on the Al Qaeda members who have been captured, how they'll be handled? And is it possible we could have the decision on them this week?

FLEISCHER: I'd refer you to DOD on that.

QUESTION: The situation in Argentina is deteriorating by the minute. The number of dead has risen dramatically -- the number of injured. Riots all over the country. The cabinet (ph) has resigned. Economics minister resigned. You said this morning that Washington considers Argentina a very special (UNINTELLIGIBLE) and a special ally. What is the White House doing, or what can the U.S. government do to help President de la Rua at this moment?

FLEISCHER: Argentina is a valued ally and friend. And the United States is monitoring developments in Argentina. We are concerned about the events. But it is also very important to note that Argentina has a strong and vibrant democracy, and President de la Rua is working hard to resolve the situation. And we want this democratically elected government to succeed.

QUESTION: Is there any way that Secretary O'Neill can contact IMF to see what measures can be taken, because the situation is dire? I don't even know a stronger word -- desperate.

FLEISCHER: Well, we continue to hope and want Argentina to work with the IMF to resolve the situation in a way that leads toward what is necessary, and that is sustainable economic growth.

QUESTION: The president has said -- back on Walker -- that he's an American citizen, and yet we read in reports some speculation that in engaging in combat against the United States, he may have given that up. Is it conceivable that he could be determined to have relinquished, renounced his American citizenship?

FLEISCHER: I don't know. That's a question I think you need to address to the lawyers who are involved.

QUESTION: Back to the stimulus package. Why, in your view, has the president been sort of unable to translate his political popularity into getting the kind of stimulus bill that he wants through the Senate? What's the disconnect here?

FLEISCHER: That's an interesting question. I think the president clearly recognizes how difficult it is for the leadership to govern the Senate.

That was true when the Republicans controlled the Senate; it's true now. The Senate is a very narrowly divided institution. It's a 51-49 split between the Democrats and the Republicans. The Republicans are almost to the person united. There are some splits within the Democrat ranks. And I think any time a leader faces splits the way the Democrats in the Senate do, it puts the leader on the spot. It's difficult to be the leader at a time like this.

Clearly, there are enough Democratic senators who support the centrist proposal that, if a majority were allowed to prevail, the majority would prevail and help would be on the way to the unemployed and to the economy.

The leader of the Senate is faced with a situation where the majority of his rank and file oppose this agreement.

FLEISCHER: There's a minority within his rank and file that support it. He has to make a difficult choice: Does he side with the minority that can block this or the majority that can lead to bipartisanship and results for the country?

It's difficult to be the leader of the Senate, and the president recognizes that. Nevertheless, the president continues to believe that at the end of the day all of us here in Washington will get judged on how well people have been able to come together and work for the country, which is why President Bush has gone the extra mile and has asked Secretary O'Neill again to contact the Senate this morning. That's why, in the substance of the package, the president has changed from his original proposal, which offered $6 billion of support for dislocated workers, now to $39 billion of support for dislocated workers. The president has moved a mile. We hope, when we're just inches away, that the Senate leadership will agree to move as well.

QUESTION: At what point then does he decide just simply to take this issue to the country, to let it be decided next November?

FLEISCHER: Number one, again, the president just continues to hope that the Senate won't just pack up their bags today and go home and leave America's workers behind. If they do, I think the likelihood, looking into next year, is that there are two things that can happen.

One is, much of the foundation for economic recovery and growth has been laid as a result of the bipartisan agreement earlier this year that provided pre-September 11 stimulus to the economy, and that was the tax cut, which was supported by 12 Senate Democrats. Of course, it was opposed by the Senate leadership, but it was supported by a very large number of Senate Democrats. It passed with 62 votes in the Senate.

That stimulus package has laid the groundwork for an economic recovery. The president, as an insurance policy, would like to make sure that that recovery takes place sooner and is more robust. Therefore, even at the end of this session of the Congress, it is still conceivable that the Senate can come back in just a month's time and pass the stimulus. Perhaps they'll go back home and hear from their constituents. Perhaps they'll hear from the unemployed or from people who currently cling to job who fear they're going to lose their jobs. So the Congress continues. The Senate will return. And the president won't give up hope. He think it's too important.

QUESTION: Just for clarification's sake, I know (UNINTELLIGIBLE) resting the hands of this decision on Senator Daschle alone in terms of a simple majority vote, but doesn't it really work that you require unanimous consent by the Senate to waive the 60-vote...

FLEISCHER: Well, actually it is singularly the determination of the majority leader of the Senate, regardless of their party, to schedule a vote. A vote can be scheduled. And so he has that power to schedule a vote. Of course, a senator can make a motion to block consideration of any type of agreement, but it still can be scheduled to vote, and then we'll see what the Senate does.

FLEISCHER: Let the Senate work its will. Let's see if the majority can hold.

QUESTION: (OFF-MIKE) there's no point in scheduling a vote, which does not have unanimous consent to waive. So what...


FLEISCHER: I think, again, that's a formula for gridlock and inaction, and that's they type of thing the American people have tired of.

If the formula in the Senate is, only 100 votes will do, then most of the major legislation that's passed in recent times -- I think, it's fair to say any piece of major legislation is doomed. And it should be the job of the Senate leadership to find a way to get things done.

It's easy to find a way to doom things. It's harder to find a way to get things done. But that's why everybody is elected, and that's why people come together in this town.

QUESTION: There is an effort under way that if this is not passed, to, at least, pull out some of the provisions, which is victim's relief, New York economic incentives, perhaps some tax extenders. Would the president support a smaller package that at least allows Congress to leave town without leaving everybody behind?

FLEISCHER: Well, I'm not going to speculate about any hypotheticals. The House was able to do it, and there's no reason why the Senate shouldn't, particularly when there's a bipartisan majority that's there to get it done.

QUESTION: When you were talking about Argentina, you didn't mention any possibility of a bilateral aid package or bilateral loans, which the U.S. has used in the past successfully, Mexico being an example. Can you elaborate on anything...


FLEISCHER: My statement speaks for itself about the importance of working with the International Monetary Fund.

QUESTION: Ari, in the past, president's have sometimes used the Christmas season as an opportunity to issue pardons. Is President Bush considering any this year?

FLEISCHER: I'm not going to speculate about anything about on pardons. If the president has anything to announce, he will hear the appropriate officials. The Department of Justice would make any announcement.

QUESTION: Quick one on the Olympics with the torch arriving in Washington Saturday. Has the president planned any festivities and does he plan to go to the Olympics?

FLEISCHER: As you know, we don't discuss travel this far ahead of time. We'll keep you posted about any announcements. So there's nothing I can offer on that immediately.

QUESTION: Ari, we saw Speaker Hastert come in, is he meeting with the president? Are they talking about economic stimulus? What can you tell us about that?

FLEISCHER: The speaker from time to time comes down to the White House. And the president and the speaker are eating lunch, as we speak.

QUESTION: Discussing economic stimulus, maybe what happens next.

FLEISCHER: I don't know, because I'm in here with you.

QUESTION: Ari, back on the Walker case. I just wanted to ask you if the president might consider a Christmas season visit to Walker by his parents, either under international custody, as he is now, or under custodial...

FLEISCHER: That's something you need to address to Department of Defense. That's not something the president decides.

QUESTION: (OFF-MIKE) reference here for some sort of plea agreement with Walker rather than going to a public trial?

FLEISCHER: Nobody has even brought any charges for it, so I think it's hard to discuss pleas.

QUESTION: Apparently, on a close listening to the Osama bin Laden tape by people who speak Arabic, there are parts of that tape which were not included in the official government translation, including specific references to several Saudi clerics and a reference to the visitor to that dinner coming through Iran. Do you have any comment on why parts of that might not have been included in the official translation? And is there a secondary translation that was not released to the public?

FLEISCHER: That's the first I've heard of that report. I'm not aware of it, haven't heard of it, and I believe what was handed out, in terms of the transcript, identified him as a Saudi cleric. I think that's what it said.

So obviously, it said...

QUESTION: In the same conversation, there was apparently references to other Saudi clerics.

FLEISCHER: Well, I'm not aware of that report, and I have no idea if it's accurate or not. But you might want to ask DOD. They're the ones who brought in the group of translators to do it. I haven't heard no complaints about it.

QUESTION: On Walker, can you confirm, is he still on board the Peleliu or has he been moved? And if he has been moved, where he has been moved to?

FLEISCHER: My latest information is that he is on board the Peleliu. I haven't heard nothing that would suggest otherwise.

QUESTION: (OFF-MIKE) Has the president spoken directly with either Scalia or Otto Reich?

FLEISCHER: I don't know if he's had direct conversations with them. I know that the president feels very strongly about the need, again, in what could be the last day of the Senate for the Senate to take action, not only on those two important nominees but on many judges and other people who have been appointed.

At last look, there were more than 150 names that the Senate has failed to act on. We spent a good bit of this briefing talking about whether Mr. Walker and a possible trial and a federal civilian in court. We talked earlier about military tribunals. And many Democrats want to make certain that any trial is held in a civilian court. It would be very helpful if the Senate would confirm the president's judges. It makes it easier to have trials in civilian courts if the Senate confirms judges for civilian courts.

There's no connection between the fate in these matters, which court will be heard, but it's just another reminder how important it is for the Senate to confirm justices.

Thank you.

WOODRUFF: At the White House, Ari Fleischer briefing reporters. The announcement right off the top, the president is already moving to prevent a United Airlines workers strike saying that the president is concerned, he said the president is concerned about the state of the economy.

He wants to do everything he can to avoid a strike because of the effect it would have on the public's ability to travel and on the economy, that he is urging both sides to do all they can to resolve their differences.

And just quickly with regard to the economic stimulus plan, Ari Fleischer said that the president still that the Senate will move on his plan, although he did on a rather discouraging note, that after the president asked Treasury Secretary Paul O'Neill to telephone Tom Daschle, Senate majority leader, to try to get those talks going again, he said the response apparently was, from Senator Daschle, that the entire collection of issues under the heading of the economic stimulus would have to be opened up and discussed again, not simply the matter of health care for the unemployed, which had been the hope of the White House.

So we will certainly look for more on that front.




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