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White House Conducts White House Press Briefing

Aired February 7, 2002 - 12:57   ET


BILL HEMMER, CNN ANCHOR: Here is Ari Fleischer. We do anticipate a further clarification of the White House stance with regard to Taliban and Al Qaeda detainees.

The White House live.

ARI FLEISCHER, WHITE HOUSE PRESS SECRETARY: This afternoon, the president will meet with Senator Lieberman and Senator Santorum to discuss the great progress that the Senate is making in an agreement that has been reached in the Senate on the president's armies of compassion initiative to bring help to people who are in poverty or who have difficulties in life that can be solved through some of the faith-based solutions and compassion solutions that the president has proposed to the Hill. That also includes an increase in charitable giving.

Later today, the president will also meet with the prime minister of Israel to discuss efforts to achieve peace in the Middle East.

Travel: The president will travel to Lima, Peru, on March 23, and San Salvador, El Salvador, on March 24. This is following his visit to Monterey, Mexico.

Peruvians, over the last year, have reaffirmed strongly their commitment to democratic principles, and have shown leadership in promoting these principles throughout the Inter-American region.

In Peru, the president will meet with President Toledo to discuss their mutual efforts to strengthen hemispheric democracy, free trade and the rule of law. They will also discuss our common fight against narcotics trafficking and terrorism.

In El Salvador, the president will discuss with President Flores the proposed initiative in a Central American free trade agreement. The two leaders will also discuss U.S. support for El Salvador's ongoing efforts to strengthen democratic institutions and to modernize its economy. They will also review U.S. assistance programs for earthquake reconstruction.

With that, I'm happy to take questions.

QUESTION: Can you tell us about the president's (OFF-MIKE) detainees in Guantanamo Bay?

FLEISCHER: At this moment, I have nothing to report on that topic. When we have something to share, we will get it out...


FLEISCHER: Would you like to ask your question louder?

QUESTION: Can you tell us about the president's decision on Guantanamo Bay?

FLEISCHER: Were you able to hear that?


FLEISCHER: The question was, will you tell us about the president's decision on Guantanamo Bay? And the answer is that there is nothing to report at this moment. When we have something to report, we will of course provide it in its entirety. But there's nothing to report right now. QUESTION: Can you tell us why the president has decided that the Geneva Convention applies to the conflict itself and the Taliban fighters but not Al Qaeda and other terrorists?

Again, there is nothing to report at this moment, and whenever we have something you'll get it and you'll have it in a full fashion.

QUESTION: Are you denying that he's made a decision on that?

FLEISCHER: Again, as you know, there are times when decisions are made, but there are some notifications, et cetera. And so, until everything is notified, I'm not going to get into this topic in any great length. But you will have information provided in its entirety as soon as all is available.

QUESTION: You're not knocking down the story? You're not saying that what's out there on the wires right now is incorrect?

FLEISCHER: I'm saying that when the White House has something to report to you, we will report it. You will have it in a full fashion.

QUESTION: Will the president make an announcement, or will it be on paper? Can you tell us that?

FLEISCHER: Well, the president is going to be having an event tonight. As you know, there's a press pool event, so you're certainly free to ask the president anything on your minds.

QUESTION: Do you expect something today on this matter?

FLEISCHER: I hesitate to make predictions as to timing. As soon as all timing is taken care of, it will be released in its entirety.

QUESTION: Ari, when the House speaker comes this afternoon, if he asks the president to pick up the phone and call House Republicans to help Speaker Hastert defeat the campaign finance Shays-Meehan bill in the House, will the president do that? Will he actively lobby against that bill and help the speaker (inaudible) that bill?

FLEISCHER: Well, first of all, I'm not going to deal with any hypotheticals for a meeting that has not taken place yet.

But the president is prepared and willing to support legislation that will improve the current campaign finance system. The president believes that there is too much soft money in the system. He wants to abolish union soft money. He wants to abolish corporate soft money. He believes we need to have greater disclosure so the American people can know where the money that enters our campaigns comes from, so they can take that into account in their decisions as to how they may want to vote.

There are a series of reforms the president supports. Those reforms that the president supports as principles and are partially reflected in several of the bills that are moving on the Hill. And the president will continue to work with the Congress so the current system can be improved.

QUESTION: Yes, but Hastert has said that this bill is a life-or- death issue for the Republican Party. Does the president agree with that? And if he agrees with it to any extent, why won't he work against the bill?

FLEISCHER: There have been many strong feelings expressed on both sides of this issue, and I can assure you all those strong feelings have been brought to the president's attention directly and indirectly.

And the signal that the president clearly sends -- has sent and continues to send -- is that he wants to sign legislation that will improve the current system.

What I think is so different about campaign finance reform in the year 2002 is, for the first time in about 10 years or more, this debate is real, because they know there's a president who's prepared to sign something if it improves the system.

In the past many years, with divided government particularly, Democrats in Congress, when President Bush was there, always pushed for something they knew former President Bush would never sign. President Clinton always pushed for something he knew Congress would never go along with.

This year it's real; this year is meaningful. And the president hopes that Congress will send him something that he can sign, because he wants to get the job done and reform the laws.

QUESTION: (OFF-MIKE) improves the system? Does he think Shays- Meehan improves the system or not?

FLEISCHER: As I indicated, the Shays-Meehan bill and the many other bills partially reflect the president's principles. It doesn't entirely reflect the president's principles. But there are some things in there that do; there are some things in there that clearly do not.

QUESTION: So he wouldn't sign it then? FLEISCHER: Well, again, it hasn't even made its way through the House yet, and so the exact process is undetermined. There may be amendments in the House, so...

QUESTION: But isn't it easy for you to stand up here and say the president would love to sign something that improves the system when you know full well that he doesn't support this and wouldn't support this?

FLEISCHER: It's never easy for me to stand up here and say anything.

QUESTION: I know, I know. But let's answer the question.


But can you answer the question?

FLEISCHER: What's your question?

QUESTION: It's easy to say that he would sign something that improves the system when you know and he knows that he doesn't support this. He doesn't think it improves the system. So, you know, he's not prepared to sign it.

FLEISCHER: As I indicated, there are many bills that partially reflect the president's principles.

Shays-Meehan, for example, differs with the president's principles in that the president thinks individuals should be allowed to contribute soft money to campaigns, because that is money that they give on their own volition. It's not coerced, it's not forced. It's not removed from their paychecks the way money is taken from union workers, for example, and then put into a political cause.

The president believes that corporate soft money should be banned, because it is taken against the will of people in companies that have no say in how that money is spent; same thing applies to union soft money. There's a difference on individuals.

So on two of those three, the president's principles are met. On one of those three, it's not.

In the end, the president will take a look at the product that the Congress settles on. This could go to conference. It's not clear what exact process will take place between the House and the Senate.

So, as is typical when legislation is at its beginning stage in the House, it's impossible to say with any definition or definity how the president will ultimately come down. He'll let the process continue to work.

QUESTION: But, Ari, John's (ph) underlying question is, is the president going to get involved in lobbying on this legislation?

FLEISCHER: Well the president has been involved. There have been meetings I have been in where the president has made crystal clear to Republicans who oppose campaign finance reform that he wants to sign a bill and that they cannot count on him to veto legislation.

QUESTION: Did he call any members this week while the debate was going on?

FLEISCHER: Not this week, certainly. The debate hasn't taken place. Next week, you can ask me next week, and I'll try to keep you informed.

QUESTION: Will he lobby against this bill, yes or no? Do you know?

FLEISCHER: The president has made it clear that he wants to sign something that will improve the system.

Now, again, John's (ph) question was presuming what the speaker will ask the president, and I don't want to go down that road.

QUESTION: I'm asking specifically -- I'm not asking about Hastert -- I'm ask specifically, will the president lobby against the Shays-Meehan bill?

FLEISCHER: As I indicated, the president believes there are elements in the Shays-Meehan bill that partially meet his principles, and the president will continue to work with Congress.

I think you can anticipate, in many of the meetings the president has with members of Congress, he'll talk about campaign finance reform and the principles that he supports and urge the Congress to pass something that matches those principles.

QUESTION: Will he lobby against the Shays-Meehan bill?

FLEISCHER: Ask me that next week, and we'll see what the decision's made. But again, the Shays-Meehan bill partially represents what the president believes is right. There are elements of it that do not.

QUESTION: How will it be different next week? I mean, you know what it is now. Hasn't he decided whether he's for it or against it?

FLEISCHER: This is the beginning of the process in the House of Representatives. Legislation's coming to the floor.

You don't know what ultimate outcome Shays-Meehan will have once it hits the floor. Depending on the rule, right now it looks like it's amendable.

The discharge petition under which Shays-Meehan is going to be considered on the floor allowed for 10 amendments by the majority, five for the minority.

So when you describe Shays-Meehan, are you describing Shays- Meehan as it exists today in its pre-vote fashion or are you describing it as it will exist in its ultimate outcome? QUESTION: The speaker has pulled a few rabbits out of the hat for the president, whether the issue be tax cuts, trade promotion authority, some other tough issues in the House of Representatives.

If the speaker came to the president, just in a clearly political sense, and said, "Mr. President, you've called me and said I need you on this one, Denny. Mr. President, this time Denny needs you," would the president feel a debt to the speaker to get involved?

FLEISCHER: The president will always work closely with the speaker. And the president will also honor the principles that he ran on, and he ran on a series of principles to improve the current system.

And the president has been in meetings with members of Congress, Republicans, where he has indicated to them that he wants to sign a bill that improves the system.

And I think that is what has made this debate so real this year. It used to be an empty exercise in Washington, D.C. when it came to campaign finance reform. This year it's real, it's significant, and it has a chance to be signed into law. And that's why the president laid out his principles.

QUESTION: But did you indicate just a second ago that a decision has basically not been made about whether or not he would lobby against this?

FLEISCHER: No, I indicated that the president views this bill as partially reflecting his principles.

QUESTION: Yes. But you may end up lobbying against...


FLEISCHER: Well, again, when you say "this," you're defining something before it can possible be understood. It's amendable, changes can be made.

QUESTION: Well, you can lobby against this bill. It doesn't have to be on the floor for the president to start lobbying against the bill. I mean, he can start today if he wanted to. Is there...

FLEISCHER: And obviously he has not.

QUESTION: He has not. And could there be a decision to lobby against Shays-Meehan before it comes to the floor? Is that under consideration?

FLEISCHER: The president has made it clear that he's going to work with Congress to sign something that improves the system. Shays- Meehan partially improves the system. It's inconsistent with several of the president's principles, but it's consistent with others. So we'll just see what the ultimate outcome is.

QUESTION: I have two questions. One has to do with this trip you just announced.

When President Clinton went to Central America after Hurricane Mitch, he went to Honduras, El Salcador, and then he went to Guatemala and met with all the Central American presidents.

He has announced that he will be in Lima on the 23rd and in El Salvador on the 24th.

Does he contemplate meeting all the Central American leaders in El Salvador after the official visit to El Salvador to push the common markets?

FLEISCHER: There will be a more robust announcement later about all the people that the president will be meeting with during these travels. So there will be other meetings with other leaders. Stay tuned for more robust announcements.

QUESTION: My second question. The meeting today with Prime Minister Sharon is going to be the fourth meeting President Bush has held with Mr. Sharon. No meetings with Chairman Arafat.

What has changed as far as seen (ph) from the Middle East? Terrorism continues; we just haven't had an event lately. What does the president expect can be worked out with Mr. Sharon, given that terrorism still exists in the Middle East and it doesn't seem to be abating?

FLEISCHER: Well, violence is not new to the Middle East. And throughout the history of the Middle East, the United States president has met with the prime minister of Israel to discuss efforts to reduce the violence. And this is part of the longstanding American commitment to Israel and to meetings with Israel's prime ministers.

The president and Prime Minister Sharon are going to discuss this evening the campaign against terror and other developments in the Middle East.

The president believes Chairman Arafat knows what he needs to do to crack down on the terrorist activities in the Middle East, and that the United States is looking to Chairman Arafat to do more to demonstrate his opposition to terrorism and the concrete steps he'll take.

The president will also express to Prime Minister Sharon this evening the president's deep concern about the plight of the Palestinian people, and he'll discuss what steps might be taken to ease the situation for the people.

QUESTION: Can I come back to the prisoner issue for a second, Ari? Since you can't tell us about an actual decision -- since this is the only time we're going to get public comment from you today -- can you at least tell us about the deliberative process involved and the decision-making process in giving certain status to Taliban members as opposed to Al Qaeda members? If you could just talk about the concerns and the deliberative process. FLEISCHER: The president has held a series of meetings with his National Security Council and has discussed the various legal issues involved in the applicability of the Geneva Convention.

In all cases, the president will reflect a policy that is a given with America's traditions of treating military detainees well, treating them humanely, giving them full rations of food, three meals a day, medical treatment. All of that will be a given, no matter what decisions the president's makes, because that's a reflection of the values of the United States and the way our military treats people.

The legal issues that are involved, in terms of the applicability of the Geneva Convention, particularly given any distinctions that may or may not be made between the Al Qaeda and the Taliban, are issues that have been a subject of discussion with the National Security Council. And that's something that you will hear at the appropriate time.

LEON HARRIS, CNN ANCHOR: We will step away from today's press briefing with Ari Fleischer at the White House. Leon Harris here, checking in with Daryn Kagan as Bill Hemmer steps out for the day after a long morning here at the desk.

We want to you a quick update at what was happening here at this White House press briefing. We stepped in because we wanted to hear whether or not there has been a decision as been reported by our John King at the White House, and we've seen various reports that President Bush perhaps has changed position his on whether or not the detainees that are right now in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba will be actually in legal status that applies to the Geneva Convention, and that has a lot of different legal implications there.

The word up to this point was that President Bush was saying that they were unlawful combatants and were, therefore, not liable under the Geneva Convention. However, there's word that there may be change, and Ari Fleischer said there is nothing to report at this moment. To clarify, he did not dispute the reports that there has been a change in the status or thinking of status in the White House, just saying right now there's nothing to report from the White House.

We'll keep our John King on that story. We'll check back with him later on.




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