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Daily White House Briefing

Aired March 6, 2002 - 12:33   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: We want to get you to the White House right now. Ari Fleischer just came out a few moments ago, taking questions today, in the daily briefing.

(JOINED IN PROGRESS)

ARI FLEISCHER, WHITE HOUSE PRESS SECRETARY: ... reputation and excellent record that Judge Pickering has on the bench that he has called on the Senate to take action. And let's see what the Senate does.

QUESTION: Since he believes so strongly in him, why not do this a week or two weeks ago when it was originally (OFF-MIKE) instead of (OFF-MIKE)?

Again, I dispute the premise. Let's see what happens in the Senate. And I think the president has been effective before in working relations with the Hill.

The Senate, at all times, has the right to kill nominees, but what would be interesting, in this case, if they do so against somebody who has a majority on the floor. And in the president's opinion, if they do so, that would indicate they played politics, especially with a nominee who received 100 votes when he was voted by the Senate in 1990 for the district court.

QUESTION: It seems that the White House defense of Judge Pickering and the local people that they brought from Mississippi is that he's a good man. He's not a racist, as has been suggested perhaps in some of the material against him.

But many of the groups are saying are it's not his heart that they have a problem with; it's his record on the bench since that 100- to-nothing confirmation vote, specific decisions that he's made as district court judge which they say evince a reluctance to abide by and a reluctance to enforce civil rights laws.

Is this an attempt to say he's a good man, he should be on the bench?

FLEISCHER: Well, that seems to be an ironic charge with Democrats to bring, given the fact that the group that the Democrat themselves called the gold standard, the American Bar Association, has today ruled that he deemed Judge Pickering as well qualified for this position. That is the judgment of the American Bar Association for the current nomination to the circuit court. The Democrats say the American Bar Association is their gold standard.

QUESTION: But the ABA only measures legal qualifications, not what the judge believes in as a matter of law, in other words not the policy preferences that the civil rights groups say he has shown in his decisions. In particular, they say he has harshly criticized the principle of one person, one vote. They say he has harshly criticized civil rights employment discrimination laws, and that that should render him unfit for an appellate court position.

FLEISCHER: Those allegations are without any basis. On the question that you raised about the Voting Rights Act, there were three cases, the Fairley, Bryant and the Morgan case. None was ever appealed, none was ever reversed. In fact, in one of those cases, the plaintiff's attorney who brought the charge is supporting Judge Pickering before the Senate Committee. So those are charges that are put out frankly.

I know the Democrat National Committee is circulating a lot of paper. Just because they say it, it doesn't make it so.

QUESTION: Ari, but the thing -- and President Bush said earlier they're playing politics on the Senate, but isn't there some kind of justification that you're coming up with from the incident of 1959 about an article that Judge Pickering, then-law student Pickering, wrote about interracial marriage and those who are involved in interracial marriage are prosecuted.

What's the rationale of that from the administration from 1959?

FLEISCHER: Well, in 1959 when Judge Pickering was a 21-year-old first-year law student he wrote an article that neither advocated nor condoned any ban on interracial marriage. That's the facts about he wrote back then. It neither condoned it, neither banned it.

And that also was addressed in 1990 by the Senate. The issue came up, they were aware of it, they confront him unanimously. So that's not a case of something that came up between 1990 and 2002. The Senate knew it in 1990, and they voted for him. So the only thing that could've changed, then, is politics.

QUESTION: I wanted to do a follow-up. One of the black leaders that you had at stake-out today said that in the '70s he wrote an article on death penalty cases, and his opinion changed. And he's under the mindset that then-law student Pickering felt that way and he has changed.

What if that were the case, was does President Bush meaning that he felt that way in '59 when he wrote the article?

FLEISCHER: But it's not the case. In fact, Judge Pickering has written from events (ph) that there was no constitutional basis for any type of ban on marriage between blacks and whites. That's what the judge has said. QUESTION: To follow-up on something you said this morning, tell us specifically how the varied histories of some senators who may vote on this could come into play in the nomination (OFF-MIKE)?

FLEISCHER: Well, take a look at what I said.

If the actions by people 40 years ago were the criteria -- that's the way I began. And the actions of people 40 years ago should not be the criteria. And in this case...

QUESTION: No, you finished that quote by saying, if that was a criteria, that the varied histories of some of the senators voting on this could come into play. Tell me specifically how that...

FLEISCHER: That's right. I said if that were the criteria. And as I think we just established here, that should not be the criteria. And if somebody chose to make it the criteria in the case of Judge Pickering, what they would find in his 1959 writings when he was 21 was that he didn't approve or disapprove.

QUESTION: Since you're using a hypothetical from the podium, go a step further. If they do use it as a criteria, how exactly will their varied histories come into play?

FLEISCHER: Well, I don't deal in hypotheticals.

QUESTION: No, you are. You're the one who's saying that that may be the criteria.

QUESTION: Has he ever shown any remorse or has he publicly recanted his past in terms of civil rights and rejection?

FLEISCHER: What are you asking for him to recant specifically? What are you accusing him of?

All right.

QUESTION: What were you referring to this morning, Ari? What senators specifically? And what about their history do you think might come into play?

FLEISCHER: Again, my statement is if actions taken by people 40 years ago were the criteria, and there were people who are making statements about what Judge Pickering is purported to have written 40 years ago, those statements and the premise is flawed. The judge did not take any stand in those writings in 1959.

QUESTION: What are you talking about specifically?

FLEISCHER: Judge Pickering.

QUESTION: No, you were talking about senators... FLEISCHER: No, I think the point I'm making is that this is 2002, and these votes that are cast by the senators who are serving in 2002 are based on what they know of a nominee who's been submitted to them. They also know what the people who've gathered in the Oval Office and who spoke from the lawn of the White House know about Judge Pickering, and that is an outstanding record.

Let me give you a for-instance on that as well. This is from William Wynter (ph), former Democrat judge. And your questions all deal with whether or not there is some type of racial reason that Judge Pickering should be denied this seat. This is from William Wynter (ph), former Democrat judge: "As a member of President Clinton's National Advisory Board on Race, I am very aware of the role that Judge Pickering has played for many years in working for racial equity and justice for racial reconciliation. He and I helped organize the Institute for Racial Reconciliation at the University of Mississippi, and now serve on its board of directors." That was three years ago. "There are very people of my acquaintance who are as dedicated as Judge Pickering to eliminating the last vestiges of racism from our society."

I think it's that type of statement from Democrats who know him in Mississippi, that is what the senators who serve now are going to weigh when they take this vote.

QUESTION: There's no question that he may be a good man. The issue that's being raised...

FLEISCHER: And a good judge and a qualified one.

QUESTION: The issue is his attitude towards the civil rights laws, which is clearly evinced in dicta, not even in the actual ruling, but in language that he just wrote in his opinions because he couldn't constrain himself, about how the employment discrimination laws, he believes, are burdensome, that they offer everyone who is terminated in employment an opportunity to make a racial claim and he doesn't like that. There's a lot of that kind of language laced through his opinions.

Does the president support that attitude toward employment discrimination law?

FLEISCHER: The president has nominated him because, when he looks at his record, he thinks he is exceptionally well-qualified, and the president addressed that himself in his own words in the Oval Office.

But if that's the case about what you're saying, where these charges are made, let them go to a vote. If that is the heartfelt belief of Democrats in the Senate, then let this man's record be considered by 100 senators on the floor of the Senate. Put it to a fair vote.

QUESTION: Ari, a couple of questions about the meeting with the foreign policy lawmakers today. Congressmen Hyde and Lantos came out and said they're introducing a resolution expressing support for Colombia's battle against insurgents beyond the drug trafficking.

Does the president view this as a welcome resolution? Does he want that support from Congress for a greater U.S. role in Colombia?

FLEISCHER: Well, the administration is talking to Congress, as we've said before, about the whole situation in Colombia. Secretary Powell is on the Hill today testifying about Colombia.

And there are laws that restrain what the administration can do to help President Pastrana, and those laws deal mostly with anti- narcotics efforts. There are many members of Congress who have some thoughts about whether that law should be changed. The administration will talk to those members. I can't indicate to you the administration has reached any conclusions yet, but that's where it stands.

QUESTION: Secondly, Congressman Lantos said he had proposed to Egyptian President Mubarak, and discussed his proposal with Bush, that Mubarak go to Jerusalem to act as an intermediary in explaining the Saudi vision for Middle East peace.

Is that an initiative that the president can support or will support?

FLEISCHER: I'm going to do this in terms of what was discussed in the meeting with the president. The president considers that a private meeting, about anything that was discussed, and I'm going to respect the privacy. The meeting was with the four chairs -- the chairs and ranking members of the House and Senate foreign relations and foreign international relations committees.

QUESTION: Does the president believe that Mubarak should go to Jerusalem and act as an intermediary in the Saudi...

FLEISCHER: The president believes that if the leaders in the region believe that would be a helpful step, then it's something the president would work for and support. But the president met with President Mubarak yesterday, and that was not something that President Mubarak indicated. So, I think there's also a question of what the president involved, President Mubarak, supports, and I think you have to address that.

QUESTION: To follow up on the Middle East, what step do you see as the next steps? Does the White House believe that a close state of war exists between the Israelis and the Palestinians? Have you seen any evidence that either side really wants peace at this point?

FLEISCHER: Well, I think from the president's point of view, the increase in the violence has been deeply troubling. And as he has said himself, he said it last night, he's concerned about the loss of innocent Israelis, the loss of innocent Palestinians. And he's working very hard to find a way to somehow break and help and make the violence stop.

He understands the right to defend, but the president wants it to be toned down so that people do not believe this becomes a matter of war.

QUESTION: Ari, following Randy's question on Colombia, Congressman Hyde and Congressman Lantos more or less explained a plan that will (inaudible). And to a question, Congressman Hyde said President Bush's being receptive. That was on camera. Off camera, Senator Biden gave a (inaudible) some statements on Colombia. He said it needs to be looked at, but he suggested that the U.S. military make an assessment, report to the president, and then the president consult the Congress.

Is that a fair decision the administration is willing to take?

FLEISCHER: Again, this was a private meeting with the president.

And I indicated to Randy that we're going to continue to listen.

There are a lot of voices in Congress on this, but what the president would say is that this is all very helpful and productive to have the thoughts of these leading members of Congress, to share them with him, to let him evaluate their thoughts with the military, with others. It is protective. It's a sign of how much concern there is about the escalating trouble in Colombia as a result of FARC's violence.

And the president is pleased that he is hearing a bipartisan message of the United States needs to help Colombia; that's his view as well. It's a question of exactly in what manner the help can be delivered most effectively.

QUESTION: Ari, can I just ask two questions, not related. One, going back to Pickering, some interest groups are saying that their concern is that the administration is trying to pat the federal judiciary with conservatives. And again, more on Terry's point, they're more concerned about Judge Pickering's record than his views 40 years ago.

And they're saying that this administration is not engaged in any kind of bipartisan consensus, trying to find people that both Democrats and Republicans can support in posts that will live, you know, 20 to 30 years beyond the Bush presidency.

What do you say to that?

FLEISCHER: Put it to a vote. Let's see where the votes are. If this vote is allowed to proceed to the floor of the Senate, the American people will know who stands in a bipartisan majority and who stands in a minority. By definition, it cannot pass unless its bipartisan. And we believe that there are enough votes on the floor of the Senate for Judge Pickering to be confirmed in a bipartisan fashion, not a landslide, but a bipartisan fashion.

So I think that if it is allowed to go to the floor of the Senate, the premise that this is partisan will be disproved. In fact, I think it's just the opposite. The reason that people wanted to try to kill it in committee is they know, if it went to the floor, it would be received on a narrow bipartisan basis and Judge Pickering would be confirmed to the circuit court. It's just the opposite.

QUESTION: Can we tie up this one other thing about Mayor Riordan's defeat in the gubernatorial primary? A, your reaction? And has this given the administration some pause to maybe no longer back a candidate until the primary has established a Republican for the election race?

FLEISCHER: No, I think that there's no question the administration talked to Mayor Riordan prior to the race. There's no question the administration encouraged him to run. And the voters of California have chosen in a primary, they have made the pick.

And I think what would be very interesting to see, if California's history repeats itself and he would be elected now as a Republican governor of the state of California after a Democrat governor chose to play a very active role in that state's primary.

QUESTION: Did it give the administration pause, though, such as in North Carolina or other races, not to back a candidate until the primary has determined who will be the Republican?

FLEISCHER: No, I think the administration, the president will continue to make judgments about various races based on what he thinks. And that will always get put to the voters, and the voters decide ultimately.

QUESTION: Two things. First, are you saying that, if Judge Pickering were to be judged himself by his views 40 years ago, that members of Congress should be subject to the same judgment? Is that the distinction you're making?

FLEISCHER: I was asked a question this morning about whether or not if he had written something that was presented this morning, which he did not write, what the effect of that would be for something he wrote in 1959, and I have addressed that question.

And I think it's fair to say that for everybody in our society, people have held different views now than they held back in the '50s on matters of race, and that's one of the great improvements in our society. But that's not what Judge Pickering wrote about in 1959, and we've walked through that already at length today.

QUESTION: So you're clearly suggesting that members of Congress should look into their own hearts and think about how they might have had different views 40 years ago and not judge Pickering in a different way than they might judge themselves?

FLEISCHER: Well, let me put it this way: When the president heard what's in the hearts and on the minds of the people who know Judge Pickering best -- many Democrats and civil rights leaders in Mississippi who've worked with them -- he knows what's on their heart and mind, and that is that Judge Pickering should be confirmed. He hopes that that same process will allow 100 senators to express what's in their hearts and minds in today's context.

QUESTION: If I can, just one other thing before you leave. On the consultations, all three of the members who spoke to us this morning suggested that the White House has now committed to more regular and more frequent consultations.

Do you believe they have been not frequent enough? Is this an effort to convince members of Congress that, if they were not briefed as often as they thought proper, that you are prepared to rectify it?

FLEISCHER: This is an age-old issue, and an important one, between the executive and the legislature. It's nothing new to this administration. And the president, I think, has done a superb job of consulting with members of Congress.

Today's meeting was a follow-up to previous meetings with the same group that's been coming down to the White House just to share ideas and to talk foreign policy. And those leaders, as you heard, welcome these opportunities. They've had them before, and they'll have them again. This president has met on a regular basis with the leadership of both the House and the Senate.

I started on Capitol Hill in 1983. I don't remember a president, Republican or Democrat, consulting as much as President Bush has done.

So it's an age-old issue; people always want more consultation. The administration does a very good job in providing it and will always work productively with members of Congress. We understand members of Congress will always want as much as they can, and we'll always try to work with them as best we can.

QUESTION: So you're not promising more frequent conversations, then? You're not promising more frequent consultations?

FLEISCHER: The president has commited we're going to continue to consult very strongly.

QUESTION: Ari, obviously Cheney's trip is coming up to the Mideast. Can you tell us whether one of the messages he'll be bringing is that the U.S. intends to facilitate regime change in Iraq? Is that one of the messages he's going to bring?

FLEISCHER: Well, that's a long-standing public policy of our administration. That goes back -- that was a law that was signed by President Clinton, supporting regime change in Iraq. So of course we advocate that. The people of Iraq...

QUESTION: What law (ph)?

FLEISCHER: I can't sight the name of it or the H.R. number, but regime change is the long-standing American policy set by statute, signed by President Clinton.

Of course we believe that the people of Iraq and the people in the region would be better off and safer if Saddam Hussein was not in charge of Iraq.

QUESTION: Kind of an oddball question, but as someone who actually lives in Washington, like everyone else here in this room, I've been interested in the emphasis that the administration has placed on having people from government in a safe place in case this city is destroyed, as you mentioned this morning.

So if there is so much concern about making sure that government will be OK, what kind of communication is the administration having with local political leaders here about whether the people of Washington are going to be OK? I mean, I don't see anything in my mailbox saying here's what you do, here's where you go, here's what to do.

FLEISCHER: I tell you exactly what the administration is doing. We're at war. The best way to protect the people of this country, in the president's opinion, is to continue this war against the terrorists who could bring harm to us, bar none. That is what the president believes is the best way to prevent any attacks on our country.

QUESTION: (OFF-MIKE) this morning, you said if actions taken 40 years ago are the criteria, then -- what was the word? You have it in front of you. Could you read that again?

FLEISCHER: You've got the transcript from this morning, and we'll make it available. We'll be happy to. Go ahead.

QUESTION: Can I add another question?

FLEISCHER: Yes.

QUESTION: You know, Biden just came out and said that, from his meeting this morning, that Condi Rice acknowledged that there was not enough consultation. So, I mean, you're sort of -- how do you answer that?

FLEISCHER: As I indicated, this is an age-old issue between the legislature and the executive, and we always try to do as much as we can. I told you the president has had these regular meetings with members of Congress, and we will always continue to consult.

QUESTION: Ari, beyond the president's public show of support today for Judge Pickering, is he doing anything behind the scenes privately? Is he talking to members of the Senate, specifically to the Judiciary Committee?

FLEISCHER: If he does I will let you know.

QUESTION: Let's go back to this question of consultation. Is there some new agreement between the White House and the kinds of people who met with the president and Ms. Rice to have more frequent consultations?

FLEISCHER: I have not had any conversations with Dr. Rice, so I can't answer that from her point of view. But as I answer it from the president's point of view, he is continuing to do as he always has done, and we'll continue to consult.

QUESTION: I understand that, but everyone who came out of those meetings today indicated to us that there was some sort of new agreement to have more consultations, more frequent consultations.

FLEISCHER: Let me talk to the president following the meeting.

QUESTION: The president's reaction to Syria's backing of the Saudi peace proposal?

FLEISCHER: Well, as you know, the president has said about that that he welcomed the ideas of Saudi Arabia. And the more nations in the region that welcome the ideas, the president thinks that makes it more constructive.

QUESTION: Does the president plan to ask Israel to allow Arafat to attend the Arab League meeting in Beirut later this month?

FLEISCHER: That meeting is not scheduled for some time, and Chairman Arafat has many opportunities to communicate in the region. And so I think that's something that you may want to talk about a little closer to the meeting.

Thank you.

HEMMER: All right, Ari Fleischer, the bulk of the questioning surrounding a judge today that was in the Oval Office. And President Bush took the opportunity at that meeting to push the case of Judge Charles Pickering Sr. to be appointed to a federal appeals court position. The Senate Judiciary Committee perhaps will take up that vote this week, the president earlier today saying that members on the hill blocking that appointment are strictly playing politics. Judge Pickering has come under criticism from groups on the left, and it is not clear right now whether or not that vote will take place -- but we have been told anyway, we anticipate that. What is more unclear than that, though, is whether or not that will indeed pass.

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