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CNN LIVE EVENT/SPECIAL

White House Briefing

Aired March 5, 2002 - 12:57   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: Live at the White House right now, we are under the two-minute warning right now. Ari Fleischer should be stepping out any moment. Two topics in specific that we know hold a lot of interest for reporters today. Number one: the visit of the Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak. Again, he arrived yesterday. In fact, he sat down and did a rather extensive interview with CNN's Wolf Blitzer. They will definitely talk about the Middle East violence right now that we have seen escalate, almost on a daily basis, and the other is the latest raids in Eastern Afghanistan, with eight Americans dead, more than 40 wounded.

Ari Fleischer now at the White House.

ARI FLEISCHER, WHITE HOUSE PRESS SECRETARY: Good morning. Good afternoon.

The president this morning had his usual round of intelligence and FBI briefings, and then he had an approximately one-hour-long meeting with Republican members of the congressional leadership from both the House and the Senate, where he gave them an update on the war and talked about several issues on the domestic agenda, including the importance of helping America achieve energy independence. There's an important vote coming up in the Senate. The president talked about the need to help the economy by passing a stimulus, and he also talked about the importance of passing a faith-based initiative to help lower-income Americans and other Americans who need help making it in America.

Later this afternoon, the president will meet with the ecumenical patriarch of the Greek Orthodox Church. And then this evening the president will meet with the president of Egypt, which will be followed by a press availability. And then the president will have dinner with the president of Egypt back in the residence.

And that is it (INAUDIBLE) opening statement. I'm happy to take questions.

QUESTION: Ari, can you tell us why Senator Daschle was not told about the shadow government?

FLEISCHER: Number one, let me...

QUESTION: And why the other leaders of both parties...

(CROSSTALK)

FLEISCHER: Number one, let me disabuse you of the misnomer of shadow government. That's a misnomer.

Senator Daschle was here at the White House earlier today where White House aides and others reiterated to the senator information that had previously been provided to people who work for him and...

QUESTION: You mean, they failed to tell him?

FLEISCHER: I do not speak for members of Congress, so that's not something that I would describe.

QUESTION: Are you talking about his staff?

FLEISCHER: Again, I do not speak for members of Congress, but the administration has consulted with the Congress, has informed the Congress about its programs that have been in place, as you know, since the Cold War, to have continuity of government and continuity of operations. The administration has informed the Congress about those plans, about those programs and was pleased to reiterate that to Senator Daschle today.

QUESTION: Let me follow up on that. Were Lott and Hastert also in that meeting? And this was with Card and Calio (INAUDIBLE)?

FLEISCHER: Senator Lott was there. The speaker, I think, had been previously informed. And Congressman Gephardt will also be provided that information.

QUESTION: Why wasn't Gephardt there?

FLEISCHER: Plans are already under way. He's already been talked to. And that will happen.

QUESTION: Wait, wait, wait. Now, he has already been talked to, you said?

FLEISCHER: That's correct.

QUESTION: Why would he not be at the briefing today, though?

FLEISCHER: That's a scheduling matter.

QUESTION: The speaker had already been talked to.

FLEISCHER: It's a scheduling matter, but that's happening.

QUESTION: How is it a scheduling matter? Were they invited?

FLEISCHER: Again, I don't make all the invitations here at the White House.

QUESTION: Was Gephardt invited to the meeting?

FLEISCHER: Again, I don't make all the scheduling arrangements for the White House. I'd have to go back and take a careful look to see who was.

QUESTION: Well, his office says he wasn't invited...

FLEISCHER: I can tell you, he's already been talked to, his office has already been talked to...

(CROSSTALK)

FLEISCHER: ... members of Congress, so that's not something that I would describe.

QUESTION: (OFF-MIKE)

FLEISCHER: Again, I do not speak for members of Congress, but the administration has consulted with the Congress, has informed the Congress about its programs that have been in place, you know, since the Cold War, to have continuity of government, continuity of operations. The administration has informed the Congress about those plans, about those programs, and is pleased to reiterate that to Senator Daschle today.

QUESTION: (OFF-MIKE) Lott and Hastert also...

(CROSSTALK)

FLEISCHER: Senator Lott was there. Speaker, I think, had been previously informed, and Congressman Gephardt will also be provided that information.

QUESTION: (OFF-MIKE)

FLEISCHER: Plans are already underway. He's already been talked to, and that will happen.

QUESTION: He has already been talked to, you said?

FLEISCHER: That's correct.

QUESTION: Why would he not be at the briefing today then?

FLEISCHER: That's a scheduling matter.

QUESTION: (OFF-MIKE)

FLEISCHER: That's a scheduling matter, but that's happening.

(CROSSTALK)

QUESTION: How is it a scheduling matter? Were they invited.

FLEISCHER: Again, I don't make all the invitations here at the White House.

QUESTION: Was Gephardt invited to the meeting?

FLEISCHER: Again, I don't make all the scheduling arrangements for the White House. I'd have to go back and take a careful look to see...

QUESTION: Well, his office says he wasn't invited.

FLEISCHER: I can tell you he's already been talked to. His office had already been talked to.

QUESTION: But why would he be left out of the meeting when you had...

FLEISCHER: If he was, it's inadvertent.

QUESTION: And when you say he's been talked to, are you saying he has been...

FLEISCHER: About coming down.

QUESTION: Has he been briefed on the shadow government, or has his people been briefed on the shadow government?

FLEISCHER: Let me say this on the topic of who exactly has been briefed, because I'm not going to want to give you the specific names, or titles of the people who have been briefed. As I indicated, going back to the Cold War, there has been a well-known plan, a well- established plan for continuity of government and continuity of operations of the government.

This is nothing new. These are not new government employees. These are people who currently work for the government, in order to assure continuity of government and continuity of operations, things such as sending out Social Security checks in the event that there was an attack on Washington, should be in place to make sure that the continuity of operations and the continuity of the government can be maintained.

I think the American people would think something was remiss if the United States government did not take every appropriate step to ensure those continuity operations. In that capacity, as part of something that is top secret and so therefore I'm not going to get into it at great length, the appropriate people were informed of these plans.

Now as I indicated earlier this morning, the president is confident that when members of Congress have a chance to pause, to think, and to talk to each other, they will recognize that this administration informed the Congress properly and informed the Congress appropriately.

QUESTION: Are they lying when they say they were not informed?

FLEISCHER: I can only say that there's a lot of information, and very often, it just takes a few days for people to put it all together and realize what they have.

QUESTION: (INAUDIBLE) didn't tell them?

QUESTION: If the appropriate people were informed, I would make the logical leap to assume that that would be Speaker Hastert and Senate President Pro Tem Robert Byrd, but his office claims that no one in their office was informed of the shadow government. I have heard that the secretary of the Senate and the sergeant at arms were informed of a quote "secret location," but not the existence of a shadow government.

QUESTION: I have heard that the secretary of the Senate and the sergeant at arms were informed of a, quote, "secret location, but not the existence of a shadow government." So where is the disconnect here?

FLEISCHER: Well, again, this somehow notion of a shadow government, that's a misnomer. As I indicated...

QUESTION: Bunch of people operating, whatever label you put on it, a bunch of people operating in a secret bunker, that information, to my knowledge, was not made clear to anyone who was in line of succession on the Democratic side.

FLEISCHER: I would again submit to you that as Congress has a chance, and a few of these individuals have a chance, to stop, pause and collect the information that they've already provided to them, I think that will all be made clear. And that's why the president is confident that that will happen by the leaders of the Congress.

QUESTION: Well, how could it be that the person who is third in line to the presidency has no knowledge of the existence of this...

FLEISCHER: Again, I think there are times when people just need to pause and talk to each other and talk fully to people on the Hill who are in a position to know. And again, as I said, the president has confidence that they will say the administration did the right things for the right reasons.

QUESTION: (OFF-MIKE) who was informed, though, and when? Was it right after the hours after September 11 when this was triggered that broadly few in the Congress happen to be informed then?

FLEISCHER: People has always been working on this program. And it's fair to say that after September 11 more people were involved in the continuity of operations as part of the program. I'm not going to get into specifically who.

And let me tell you why I'm not going to do the specifically who was informed about the program. There was a similar program that operated for the legislative branch. And as a result of a great many people talking about it and discussing it and being informed, the program is now a tourist attraction at a waste of millions and millions of dollars to the public.

These are serious programs in serious times. And the president has made clear that he will inform the Congress, because it's a responsibility and it's important for our nation that Congress be informed. But the president has no interest in repeating in the executive branch what happened in the legislative branch.

QUESTION: But there's a real conflict here.

QUESTION: You understand that don't you? You are absolutely contradicting what the leaders have said.

FLEISCHER: I can only reiterate what I said about the president's confidence as members have this opportunity to stop, pause and talk to each other. I wouldn't say that lightly. I wouldn't say that if I didn't have reason to say that.

QUESTION: So they didn't get it? However, you chose to inform the leadership of Congress about the acceleration, the substantial acceleration and the putting in place of this program which has been in place -- been established in the Cold War. You ramped it up, and in some form or fashion, it's your claim that the administration informed these leaders -- they didn't get it.

FLEISCHER: I cannot speak for what members of Congress received from people who are close to them around their staff. I can only assure you again that the administration informed the appropriate people and operated exactly as an administration should vis-a-vis the Congress.

QUESTION: Did these concerns that the leaders of Congress are raising indicate to you a breakdown in communication, that whatever you said wasn't understood, and that the White House therefore needs to work on making sure that the legislative branch is informed of these kinds of activities in a way that they get?

FLEISCHER: Obviously, there was an addition made today where information was reiterated. And I'm certain that as people return to the Hill and have the appropriate conversations with the appropriate people, it will become clear to them, and they will have that opportunity. They will hear from their people.

QUESTION: Ari, did everyone get the same information? Ari, there's some suggestion from -- what we understand from officials is that those in the direct line of succession had a more detailed understanding of what was going on, including the fact that there were officials working at the undisclosed location to maintain continuity of government while others simply knew that there was a location, but not the details of what was happening there.

FLEISCHER: People were appropriately informed, is how I'm going to leave it.

QUESTION: Violence in the Middle East has been spiraling out of control. The president will be meeting in a few hours with President Hosni Mubarak of Egypt, who has already launched a proposal for a summit between Sharon and Arafat, hosted by him at Sharm el-Sheikh. What does the administration feel about this proposal?

FLEISCHER: Well, the president looks forward to having the meeting with President Mubarak. He welcomes the president's ideas. It's another sign, just as Saudi Arabia advanced some ideas a few weeks ago, that the president is joined by leaders in the region who seek to create an environment in which peace can take root. There have been other statements from Arab nations objecting to the Saudi proposal. The president welcomes these new ideas, because he wants to find that way to create an environment in which peace can take hold.

So he looks forward to having the meeting with President Mubarak. The president also understands that the single best way for peace to be achieved in the region is for the parties involved, the Palestinian Authority and Israel, to agree to whatever those proposals are.

QUESTION: However, Ari, the White House has been stating that they still feel Chairman Arafat has not done enough to control the violence. Does this mean that the president is not so resigned to the idea of the summit?

FLEISCHER: The president is deeply troubled by the violence that's taking place, which has cost the lives of innocent Israelis and innocent Palestinians. The president continues to believe, as I've said repeatedly, Chairman Arafat has it within his power to do more to stop the violence. He does believe that. And the president is very results oriented. He wants to see those results.

And the reason for that is, because the president understands that these attacks are also a threat to Chairman Arafat's authority. And at the end of the day that those who are suffering the most are the Palestinian people, as well as the Israeli people. And so the president has been consistent in urging all sides to remember that any actions they take today can affect the prospects for peace tomorrow. And he does still have that common vision of the Israelis and Palestinians living within secure borders and at peace with other based on the U.N. Resolutions 242 and 338.

QUESTION: Is the White House also calling on Israelis to exercise restraint, because some Palestinians are saying some of their violence is in response to the Israeli insurgence into those West Bank towns?

QUESTION: What message does this administration...

(CROSSTALK)

FLEISCHER: As I just indicated, the president is deeply troubled by the violence, and that the Palestinian people have been affected by this as well. And the president does believe that Prime Minister Sharon must take steps to ease the plight of the Palestinian people, including allowing them to rekindle economic opportunities for themselves and to provide a better future for the next generation of the Palestinians.

QUESTION: What specifically about the incursions into those West Bank towns? Does this administration thank (ph) the Israelis?

FLEISCHER: There was loss of innocent life. And that's been unfortunately the pattern in all the violence that's taken place in the Middle East. And that's why the president went to the United Nations in New York and gave a speech in which he is a Republican president called for the creation of a state called Palestine while also recognizing Israel's right to live in security and to have secure borders.

The president has tried very hard to create that atmosphere. If you recall, right after that, Secretary Powell went to Kentucky. He even gave a major speech about how to bring peace to the Middle East, which is followed by General Zinni's mission to the Middle East. The situation has remained a very complicated, a very difficult one, and that's why the president is going to continue to hold the meetings he's having. He'll meet with the president of Egypt tonight.

QUESTION: Ari, curiously, everybody has seemed to put their two cents in since the controversy last week about this. What has the American public said? Have they called in? Has President Bush listened to some of these calls from the American public, because this became a very big issue last week?

FLEISCHER: This isn't an issue on which to measure, for example, polling or to take some type of sample of that nature. This is a question of what the president thinks is the best way to achieve peace in a region that is very, very complicated and has been fraught with violence for decades.

QUESTION: But he's meeting with Mr. Mubarak this evening. And Mubarak clearly wants to have a summit between both leaders. And president Bush wants to still deal with the Mitchell accord. I mean, is he listening -- is he taking an open-minded approach to this, or is he set in stone with what he wants to do, leaving Yassir Arafat out of any kinds of talks until he fixes the situation there?

FLEISCHER: No, let me reiterate what I said earlier. As the president welcomes this type of thinking from our Arab leaders that focuses on peace, the president has said that the parties, the two parties have to be the ones to agree. It's kind of hard to have a meeting between two leaders if one of them or both of them aren't interested in meeting with each other.

FLEISCHER: And it has to have the two parties agree, and the president would support that if the two parties agreed.

QUESTION: Ari, the senator outside said that the president today will (INAUDIBLE) tariffs of up to 30 percent on certain steel products over three years. Can you confirm that or at least tell us a little bit about what the president's going to say today?

FLEISCHER: I can confirm that the president will later today issue a statement that includes his decision on the question of how to protect our free trade while also providing for free trade that is fair and that is real. And so I think you can anticipate a statement from the president later today, and then some briefings from administration officials later today.

(CROSSTALK)

FLEISCHER: We'll work out the exact time. What we're going to do is, as soon as we are able to finalize all the paperwork, et cetera, we'll put out a notice to you via pager or our usual ways we'll let you know. (CROSSTALK)

FLEISCHER: I think mid-afternoon is most likely.

QUESTION: Can I ask you about a different topic?

FLEISCHER: Go ahead.

QUESTION: What is the president doing to further the nomination of Judge Pickering? And is he about to take a more public role in pushing for his approval in the Senate Judiciary Committee?

FLEISCHER: Well, the president feels very strongly that the Senate should appoint Judge Pickering to the Circuit Court. After all, they confirmed him unanimously to the District Court. Judge Pickering received from the American Bar Association, a group that has been called the gold standard by the Democratic Party, a high recommendation to be appointed.

The president tomorrow will welcome Judge Pickering to the White House to discuss the upcoming vote in the Senate, and the president does believe very strongly that Judge Pickering is the right man for the right job. And let me also, I want to cite something that was said recently in the Senate about the process, because sometimes in the United States Senate the process is one route to a result. There have been some Democrats who have said that the on floor of the Senate they will vote for Judge Pickering, it appears that he will have the votes to succeed. So the question really comes down to what will happen in the committee. And I want to read to you a quote from Senator Joe Biden from March 19, 1997.

Quote: "My reading of the Constitution, though, is the Judiciary Committee is not mentioned in the Constitution. The Judiciary Committee is not mentioned, the Senate is. We only in the Judiciary Committee have the right to give advice to the Senate, but it's the Senate that gives its advice and consent on judicial nominations.

"But it is not, I will respectfully request, Madam President, appropriate to have hearings on them, not to bring them to the floor and not to allow a vote. It is not appropriate to insist that we, the senators, we, the senators, get to tell the president who he must nominate if it is not in line with the last 200 years of tradition."

And the president agrees with that sentiment and the president hopes that this vote, no matter what the outcome in committee, will go to the floor so that he can have his day in court.

QUESTION: (OFF-MIKE)

FLEISCHER: That was March 19, 1997, and he -- actually let me continue, thank you though, let me continue the quote -- added, "But I also respectfully suggest that everyone who was nominated is entitled to have a shot, to have a hearing, and to have a shot to be heard on the floor and to have a vote on the floor."

QUESTION: (OFF-MIKE) White House is arguing then that the Judiciary Committee does not have the right to kill the nomination in committee?

FLEISCHER: No, they have the right. Clearly, in the Senate, committees have the right to do as whatever the Senate procedures allow. That is a right allowable under Senate rules. The point the president's making is, this appears to be a nominee who has sufficient votes to pass on the floor, and the president hopes that the Senate will allow the will of the Senate to be done.

QUESTION: But your citing Biden, suggesting that there is no constitutional authority for the committee to kill nominations.

FLEISCHER: I don't think this is a matter of jurisprudence and constitutional law as much as a matter of consistency. And if that was what Senator Biden believed articulately in 1997, I think it'll be interesting to see what happens in the committee this week.

QUESTION: As you were recalling statements from the late 90s, back when steel was an issue...

FLEISCHER: Uh oh.

(LAUGHTER)

QUESTION: Back when steel was an issue in the late 90s, and the Clinton administration was considering tariffs as well, a number of Republicans made the point that a tariff increase is equivalent to a tax increase.

HEMMER: We're going to leave the White House momentarily.

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