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CNN LIVE EVENT/SPECIAL

Ari Fleischer Briefs Press on Campaign Finance Reform

Aired February 13, 2002 - 14:30   ET

THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.


THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.
BILL HEMMER, CNN ANCHOR: Now to the White House. Ari Fleischer, first up on the docket. Campaign finance reform before the House today on Capitol Hill.

ARI FLEISCHER, WHITE HOUSE PRESS SECRETARY: An important announcement I'd like to make on campaign finance reform. The president this morning began his day with the usual briefings from the CIA and the FBI, then convened a meeting of the National Security Council.

The president met with President Musharraf of Pakistan for approximately 45 minutes to an hour in the Oval Office and then had a one-hour lunch with President Musharraf back in the residence.

During their time together, they discussed the war of terrorism, bilateral relations with India and Pakistan and economic assistance for Pakistan.

The president views President Musharraf as a stalwart ally in the war on terrorism and is very grateful to President Musharraf for the strong actions that Pakistan has taken.

Later today, the president will meet with United Nations Secretary General Kofi Annan.

And then the president will depart for the State Department, where he will make remarks to Cabinet and sub-Cabinet government employees about the importance of government service. And the president will say that it's important to leave Washington better than we found it. It's a real team-building message, as, in effect, the manager of the federal government to many senior-level government employees.

QUESTION: Open?

FLEISCHER: No, it is not. He's not able to change it.

Approximately one hour ago, the president was just informed about a very troubling development on campaign finance reform, as a result of a provision that is a multi-million-dollar soft money loophole that was inserted in the Shays -Meehan substitute campaign finance reform legislation in the middle of the night last night.

This change, which was not in previous versions of the bill, is engineered to allow soft money to pay off existing hard-money debts for the Republican National Committee and the Democratic National Committee. The president views this as an unfair, unwise and unwarranted change that makes something that is currently illegal and tries to turn it into something that is legal.

FLEISCHER: And the president believes that this should be removed from the version of the bill that is being considered on the floor.

With that, I'm happy to take your questions.

QUESTION: (OFF-MIKE)

FLEISCHER: You know, the president, again, wants to sign something that improves the system. That provision, that multi- million dollar loophole, is not in the Ney-Wynn bill. It is in the Shays-Meehan bill.

QUESTION: (OFF-MIKE)

FLEISCHER: The president wants to sign something that will improve the system. The president hopes that the House will take the appropriate action.

QUESTION: This is the only time that you have spoken out one way or the other for the or against campaign finance reform on behalf of the president. Do you continue to assure us today that the president is doing nothing behind the scenes to help the Republican Party in its interest defeat campaign finance reform?

FLEISCHER: Actually, I've been talking on a regular basis about campaign finance reform and what the president thinks. And the president wants to sign a bill that improves the system.

The reason nobody could talk about this before was it didn't exist until midnight last night.

QUESTION: But is he doing anything behind the scenes, as has been suggested, to help defeat it for the Republican Party?

FLEISCHER: The president would like to see something passed. But, no, the president has not made any phone calls or done anything of that nature.

QUESTION: Was the president aware when he announced support earlier today for having the law take effect immediately, was he aware of that amendment as seen by supporters as a way to kill...

FLEISCHER: No. This change was made in the middle of the night. It's on page 79 of the Shays substitute. And the president was not aware of that until after his meeting with President Musharraf. I was not aware.

No, the president's statement about an immediate effect today still applies. QUESTION: Did he know when he said that? Do you guys understand that the supporters of the bill see that amendment as a way to kill the bill? In fact, he's speaking out to kill the bill.

FLEISCHER: Why would that kill a bill? If it's good reform then shouldn't it go into law? And, of course, Shays-Meehan always had an immediate effective date. They only changed it recently.

FLEISCHER: So that was part of the Shays-Meehan bill previously. I think that doesn't make sense that that would kill the bill. I don't know how it would do that.

QUESTION: Is this multi-million dollar loophole the only deal- breaker in the Shays-Meehan substitute?

FLEISCHER: Well, again, I described it on behalf of the president as unfair, unwarranted and unwise. The president still wants to sign something that improves the system. The House has this opportunity to work its will and to remove this provision.

QUESTION: Is this the only deal-breaker, though, that...

FLEISCHER: I haven't used that word. I described it as I've described it.

QUESTION: Are the other 78 pages OK?

FLEISCHER: Shays-Meehan makes several improvements to the current system. There are some things in there that the president does not see as improving the system. Same as could be said about the other legislation that's pending as well, Ney-Wynn.

QUESTION: Today the president supported an amendment that supporters of campaign finance reform say will kill the bill and you've come out against an amendment that has been attached to the bill. Is there any reason we should really think that you're for the bill?

FLEISCHER: Well, I'm not really sure why a supporter of reform would say, "This is a good bill, these changes need to be made but we don't want to make them right now." I mean, I don't see why that could kill a bill.

QUESTION: You know why. They're concerned it'll play a role in the 2002 election, so that you might get more support if it takes affect after 2002 because some Republicans are concerned that it would alter the balance in the House of Representatives leading up to the November elections.

FLEISCHER: No, I think, frankly, if it's a good reform, the reform should go into effect. That's what the president believes. I think that to make that argument means, perhaps, that the reformers aren't as dedicated to reform as they would indicate. QUESTION: So how should we take the president's comments today about how he would like to see something that takes effect immediately? If a bill comes to his desk that takes effect after the November elections, would he sign it?

FLEISCHER: Well, as I indicated this morning, if you recall, that if it has a later effective date, the president has said that it is not the end of the world, but the president does believe that it should take place immediately and I think he has a lot of support for that on Capitol Hill. But in terms of -- well, go ahead.

QUESTION: So it's not the end meaning that he would sign it.

FLEISCHER: The president has indicated he will sign something that improves the system.

QUESTION: Ari, could you describe what exactly is wrong with the soft money loophole?

FLEISCHER: Well, first of all it is currently illegal to use soft money to pay off hard money debts. So it just seems like an odd so-called reform to take something that's currently illegal and legalize a multi-million dollar infusion of soft money into the system. If campaign reform is designed to get soft money out of the system, then why are they changing something that is currently illegal about using the soft money, and inviting more millions of dollars of soft money to pay off debts?

The other interesting issue about it is if you take a look at the debts of the Republican National Committee and the Democratic National Committee, the Republican National Committee does not have any hard money debt. The Democrat National Committee has approximately $10.8 million in debt; much of it hard, much of it soft.

QUESTION: Might that be why you're opposed to a loophole?

FLEISCHER: No. I think that's also one of the issue why this midnight change was put in there. No change should be designed to help one party or another party. It should be a fair reform to all.

QUESTION: Ari, you said this morning that the meeting -- regular meetings with the Congress leadership is going to be now every two weeks instead of every week. Any particular reason for that?

FLEISCHER: The president said that himself a couple of weeks ago at a press avail. I think it's just scheduling logistics. They continue to like each other, like each other a lot, but biweekly meetings work as well -- or semi-weekly, whichever is once every two.

QUESTION: The meeting today with the secretary general -- that was not on the schedule. Is this something that came up?

FLEISCHER: I think that was called out last night. The secretary general was in town. He sought a meeting with the president, and the president was able to accommodate.

QUESTION: And how much time...

(CROSSTALK)

QUESTION: And what time did it start?

FLEISCHER: It starts now. I guess I won't be going to it. I think it's a 20-minute meeting.

QUESTION: What's on the table for that meeting?

FLEISCHER: I think we'll talk about any number of items around the world and certainly including Afghanistan.

QUESTION: A couple of questions about Pakistan: Did the president make any assurances to President Musharraf about the $3 billion in debt forgiveness that Pakistan wants? And the issues of being able to sell textiles, was there anything given by the U.S. on that? And the same with the ability to buy military goods from the U.S.?

FLEISCHER: On the question of textiles, discussions are ongoing; that's an important topic. There are many people on the Hill who have strong opinions about that issue, so those discussions are ongoing.

On the question of economic assistance, the president has committed to $200 million worth of economic assistance to Pakistan, which will result in a paying down of approximately $1 billion worth of Pakistani debt. That's for the '03 budget.

QUESTION: Is that old?

FLEISCHER: That's from the '03 budget, new money. In addition, they did talk about additional funding this year to help Pakistan with education assistance, law enforcement assistance and economic development. No dollar amount.

QUESTION: How about military? Well, first of all, let's go back to $200 million: How does that help pay down $1 billion in debt?

FLEISCHER: That is a great question and I have asked it to the people who do work in the realm of international debt. And I have been advised that if you give $200 million of assistance, it pays down $1 billion worth of debt. I can only repeat it. I can't understand it.

(LAUGHTER)

QUESTION: How about the military goods? Will they be able to get the F-16s, any of the military goods?

FLEISCHER: On military matters, they did discuss and we will have a program of military cooperation and exchange with the Pakistani government that had been suspended for approximately a 10-year period. And the president views that as a very constructive change in the relationship, showing the long-term commitment of the United States and Pakistan.

On other issues involving the military, the president is meeting with Secretary Rumsfeld this afternoon. FLEISCHER: You may want to get updates from the Pentagon about any other discussions about anything involving weapons or weapons systems.

On the question of the F-16s, no change in the status of what the president said in New York City on that topic.

QUESTION: Ari, on the -- Musharraf said, regarding Daniel Pearl, that he was reasonably sure that he is alive. Did he offer the president any more reassurance or explain how or why he...

FLEISCHER: The president brought up the question of Mr. Pearl in the Oval Office during their discussions. And I won't speak for President Musharraf, but the president is pleased with the actions the Pakistani government has been taking. They've been very earnest in their efforts to help us to have Mr. Pearl come back to the United States. But we still do not know exactly where he is.

QUESTION: But did you get the impression, based on what he said today, that there was anything new or any progress, I guess, in the last 24 hours?

FLEISCHER: Well, certainly Pakistan has been very aggressive in making arrests, which has been helpful in leading to information. It just hasn't gotten all the way there yet, unfortunately, in terms of allowing the release of Mr. Pearl.

QUESTION: Did they discuss, in particular, the arrest yesterday of the man believed to be a key suspect in this, Sheik Omar?

FLEISCHER: I was at the lunch, not the Oval, and I have not heard that level of detail about that.

QUESTION: Ari, do you believe this is payback for Musharraf (OFF-MIKE) taking a hard stand against (OFF-MIKE)?

FLEISCHER: I can't begin to guess the motivation of kidnappers. What they have done is just wrong, it's terrorist, it's kidnapping. And the United States simply says, again, he's a journalist and he should be released.

QUESTION: Were there discussions of Osama bin Laden, where he may be?

And President Musharraf made a point of saying that tensions with India seem to be declining a bit. So will that allow -- did Musharraf give any indication that he would use his forces to actively search within his own country for bin Laden?

FLEISCHER: They did discuss Osama bin Laden, and obviously neither one of us -- neither the president nor President Musharraf knows exactly where he is. But we are working very cooperatively with Pakistan in trying to find where he is.

QUESTION: (OFF-MIKE) increase the effort on the part of the Pakistani... FLEISCHER: I think it's fair to say there's a lot of effort already in that area.

QUESTION: Two questions on Musharraf's meeting: The president has said on many occasions that he was quite concerned about missile proliferation, particularly from North Korea, one of the axis powers. And, of course, Pakistan has historically been one of the largest importers of missiles from North Korea. Was there any discussion of this? And were there any commitments from President Musharraf to cease importing missile technologies from North Korea?

FLEISCHER: There was no discussion that I heard.

QUESTION: And is any of the aid money contingent on Pakistan ceasing its missile purchases from North Korea?

FLEISCHER: Not that I heard. That did not come up in the meeting that was I attending.

QUESTION: Osama bin Laden has been raised before. President Musharraf, you may recall, suggested about two or three weeks ago that he thought bin Laden was dead. Did he repeat that today and is that still his belief when you emerged from the meeting?

FLEISCHER: Again, nobody knows for sure. He doesn't know for sure if he's alive or not. And most of that conversation took place in the Oval Office, and so I want to hesitate to characterize it in full. They did talk about how no one knows exactly where he is. So I think the implication is that he is likely alive.

QUESTION: Musharraf spoke about education reform as a means of curbing extremism, and I'm just wondering what specific steps is the U.S. taking to address some of these underlying cultural tensions that help breed terrorism?

FLEISCHER: Well, it was a very interesting discussion on education, because the president thinks -- and this is very long-term thinking in terms of how to work around the world, particularly in countries that have been known to foster terrorism, where terrorists seem to come from -- the importance of education.

As the president says, through education, young people have hope. And the president has always been very clear, in all the statements he's made, whether it was about North Korea or Iran or Iraq, or anywhere, Palestinian Authority, that it's the people that the United States is concerned with, that they are victims of regimes that invite terrorism and then practice terrorism.

But the overwhelming number of people in these areas, in these countries, just want hope, they want opportunity, they want economic development. And that's why the president enjoys talking so much with President Musharraf about education reform, because they are moving forward in Pakistan with education reform, as President Musharraf discussed.

HEMMER: We're going to leave the White House just for a moment, here.

(INTERRUPTED FOR CNN COVERAGE OF BREAKING NEWS)

HEMMER: Back to the White House once again. Here is Ari Fleischer.

QUESTION: Why is that so much better than a positive commitment like Kyoto revision?

ARI FLEISCHER, WHITE HOUSE PRESS SECRETARY: Let me -- on two points, here, let me take your second one, first. On the question of your premise about what the president will announce tomorrow, I'd urge you to be cautious in assuming that you know what the president is going to announce tomorrow. On the first part of it, the president views the Kyoto treaty as flawed for two principle reasons. One, it exempts many developing nations around the world from participating in something that has to be a global effort to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. He does not think it's fair to ignore such giant nations as India or China as part of a global effort to reduce greenhouse gases.

Also the president is very concerned about the effect Kyoto would have on America's workers, on American jobs and on the American economy. That it is not the right remedy to have a massive reduction below 1990 levels. If that were to go into effect, it would have a screeching halt effect on the economy and people would lose their jobs as a result.

The president believes that we can economic growth and environmental enhancement. And that's what he'll be discussing tomorrow.

QUESTION: Has the president been briefed on the February 4 Predator strike in Afghanistan? And is he confident that a military target was hit?

FLEISCHER: Now, the president, of course, has been briefed. That's part of his regular morning meetings. And I think you've heard from the Defense Department directly about that topic. And the president is satisfied fully with what Defense has informed him.

QUESTION: More specifically, there was a report this morning that a senior Al Qaeda finance official may have been hit, as opposed to innocent civilians.

QUESTION: Can you shed any light at all on that?

FLEISCHER: I cannot confirm that information.

QUESTION: Did the two presidents discuss, number one, the question of cross-border terrorism, which has been holding up a battle (ph)? Secondly, India has given a list of 20 people -- the criminals they want repatriated. Fourteen of them are Indian citizens in Pakistan. And did they discuss this aspect when the president said that he will promote a dialogue?

Did they discuss these two issues, namely cross-border terrorism and meeting the Indian list?

FLEISCHER: I think you heard President Musharraf himself address the issue in the news conference about cross-border terrorism when he made a determination, a commitment to fight terrorism of all forms everywhere. So I think President Musharraf directly addressed that question.

QUESTION: Is Kofi Annan doing a stakeout?

FLEISCHER: You would have to ask him. I could not tell you. I don't know.

Thank you.

HEMMER: All right, Ari Fleischer there at the White House with a wide range of topics to discuss, including the visit of Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf. It is a meeting and an ally that had become all too critical for the U.S., dating back to the events of September 11th. And hearing the president earlier today with the general from Pakistan, clearly that relationship has blossomed to a degree that many people would never have imagined.

A couple notes here on Daniel Pearl, the White House saying -- quote -- "they still do not know where the "Wall Street Journal" reporter is at this time. With regards to Osama bin Laden, talking for Pervez Musharraf, Ari Fleischer says he is not sure if bin Laden is alive or not. But no one clearly knows where he is. And Ari Fleischer indicating that, since no one knows where he is, it lends credence to the strong possibility that bin Laden is still alive.

Also off the top there, you heard some campaign finance reform. That's being debated right now in the House. It could go late into the evening tonight. The White House expressing its concerns now that one of the latest provisions put into that bill, that allows soft money to be used to pay off hard money debts, is certainly, the White House says, illegal now, and should not be allowed with the passage of that bill -- possibly in the late hours of Wednesday night, into Thursday morning.

That's a wrap from the White House. We'll get a wrap from us in a moment here. Back after this.

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