CNN LIVE EVENT/SPECIAL
White House Press Secretary Holds Briefing
Aired April 16, 2002 - 12:38 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.
KYRA PHILLIPS, CNN ANCHOR: We're going to move on now to the White House briefing. And Ari Fleischer has stepped up to the podium. Let's listen in.
(JOINED IN PROGRESS)
ARI FLEISCHER, WHITE HOUSE PRESS SECRETARY: ... presented by the Crown Prince at the March 27 to March 28 Arab summit in Beirut. As well, they will discuss U.S.-Saudi bilateral relationship, the next phase in the war against terrorism, and the general situation in the Middle East.
And with that, I'm happy to take your questions.
QUESTION: Ari, did administration officials or their representatives say or communicate anything to Venezuelan opposition leaders that a reasonable person could conclude as even tacit approval of removing Chavez?
FLEISCHER: United States officials explicitly made clear, repeatedly, to opposition leaders that the United States would not support a coup. The tradition, the history in the last 20 years in Central America and South America has been a tradition of democracy thanks in great part to the United States' efforts, and that's a message the United States proudly repeats with all our allies in the region, that the answer to all these problems remains problems that have to be solved through democratic solutions.
FLEISCHER: That's why again I reiterate that the United States policy is to support democracy and democratic solutions to any type of problems in nations around the world particularly though in our hemisphere. We take great pride in the advancements and the changes have taken place in that region.
We explicitly told opposition leaders that the United States would not support a coup. Many of these conversations took place in repeated numbers of levels throughout the State Department and NSC as well in conversations that nearly appointed Ambassador Charles Shapiro and former Ambassador Hrinak had with officials in Venezuela.
QUESTION: (OFF-MIKE) explicit statements that was accompanied by... (CROSSTALK)
FLEISCHER: I think at this point it's incumbent on you now. If you have any evidence, if you have anything that you think you're aware of, bring it forward, and I will evaluate it.
But there's nothing that I can find to substantiate any of those charges. I think it's just the opposite.
But again, if you have anything present it. I don't think you'll find a thing.
QUESTION: With regards to a specific question, did anyone in the administration, in particular the National Security Council staff (inaudible) or Assistant Secretary of State Otto Reich meet with Pedro Carmona, the man who dissolved the Venezuelan Congress, dissolved the Venezuelan supreme court, and the constitution last Friday -- did he meet with any administration officials?
FLEISCHER: Today, U.S. officials met with a broad spectrum of Venezuelan officials, including business association representatives including Mr. Carmona as well as pro-Chavez legislators, including labor officials, officials from the Catholic church, throughout the routine course of discussions with officials in Venezuela.
QUESTION: And they met with Mr. Carmona, but he never gave any indication that he was willing and ready and able to take this step of seizing power illegitimately?
FLEISCHER: No. Rewind your tapes, and I think you'll see what took place very clearly, that throughout last week, popular protests began and accelerated and grew in number.
There's no secret that president Chavez has had a rule that has been controversial and was not met with widespread popular support within Venezuela or among his neighbors and certainly in the United States with President Bush.
So it should be no surprise that there were widespread protests that grew, increased in number to the point where, on Thursday, heading into Friday, said 500,000 people peacefully protested his rule. And that is what set in motion the whole series of events after forces who were loyal to him fired on the protectors.
QUESTION: One more. Last Friday, you said that it, the seizure of power illegitimately in Venezuela happened in a very quick fashion as a result of the message of the Venezuelan people, that the seizure of power, extra-constitutionally, with the dissolution of the Congress and the Supreme Court happened as a result of the message of the Venezuelan people. On that same day...
FLEISCHER: No, it's not what I said.
QUESTION: The president of Mexico, the president of Costa Rica, the president of Argentina, and the president of Paraguay all stood up with moral clarity and condemned the seizure of power. This president and you as his spokesman did not. What does that do to American credibility when it comes to promoting democracy around the world?
FLEISCHER: Rewind your tape and check the precise time and sequence of events. The briefing that I gave took place first in the morning at approximately 10 o'clock, and the second briefing was approximately at 12:30. The dissolution that you just referred to did not take place until later Friday afternoon.
It could not possibly be addressed in my briefing, because it hadn't taken place yet. It was those events that led, more than 24 hours later, to the region through the Organization of American States putting out a statement late into Saturday evening, voted by the United States, with the support of the United States, condemning the events that took place and urging the restoration of democracy, condemning the deplorable acts of violence and the loss of human life.
That took place as a result of subsequent events, and the timing and the sequence is crucial here, because what you need to realize is that as you ask me questions, all I can do is give you answers based on the facts as were known at that time.
QUESTION: The facts that were known at that time enabled President Fox to speak with moral clarity...
FLEISCHER: Not until later Friday afternoon, Terry...
QUESTION: Can't the American people and the world
QUESTION: ... expect this president to speak with the same moral clarity...
FLEISCHER: Terry, you have to get the sequence of your facts established. Those statements made by Brazil and by President Fox did not take place until later on Friday afternoon, as events unfolded, and repeatedly throughout our conversation Friday I reminded all of you that events were combustible, events were fluid, but you cannot hold any spokesman responsible for events that take place following a statement.
Those events were not anticipated, and once those events took place, the United States did move to condemn it, to criticize it, and again, you have to be precise in your timing on this issue, because the news was breaking Friday as I spoke, I shared with you information as it developed. John.
QUESTION: Was the United States prepared in any way to offer President Chavez safe passage to a third country.
FLEISCHER: I don't know. The best information I have on that, John, is all developed through the Venezuelan military.
QUESTION: Can you speak to the idea -- was there an American aircraft on standby, should it be needed?
FLEISCHER: I don't know. I have no information about that. I think his transportation was arranged after his resignation through the Venezuelan military, which flew him to a Caribbean island. You'd have to try to find anything out about that.
QUESTION: (inaudible) consideration of a separate statement in addition to the OAS action.
FLEISCHER: In between Friday noon and Saturday night?
FLEISCHER: I think that the statement Saturday, by the OAS, with the United States vote, speaks very powerfully for itself.
QUESTION: Not as powerfully as a statement by the President, or by the White House.
FLEISCHER: That statement came on Sunday, if you recall. So you had a statement Friday on the basis of events as they were known at 10:00 in the morning, when I spoke with you the first time, and then at noon following that. And then the events that Terry cited took place, developing into Friday afternoon and into the evening. And then Saturday the OAS met, with United States support, to issue the condemnation. And then that was expressed by Dr. Rice on the Sunday shows on Sunday, as well as in the statement by me on Sunday afternoon.
QUESTION: Ari, just more generally, does the president think the people of Venezuela would be better off if Chavez weren't in power?
FLEISCHER: As I indicated Friday, that these are issues for the Venezuelan people to resolve, and this is a matter of listening to the people of Venezuela.
QUESTION: But just a moment ago you indicate that, you know, the president was not entirely happy, thrilled with some of the decisions Chavez made.
FLEISCHER: That's an accurate statement, but the question you asked, about would the Venezuelan people be better off, is a question left only to the Venezuelan people.
QUESTION: Does the U.S. believe there was a coup?
FLEISCHER: That's the purpose of the OAS fact-finding mission that the United States voted in favor of. That is under way now, and that will establish all the facts. And I think what you can imagine, again, rewind your own tapes, you showed the large-spread protests in the street of Venezuelan gathering steam into last week, culminating in Friday with some 500,000 people in the streets. And as I indicated Friday, President Chavez resigned under pressure. And the purpose of the OAS mission is to ascertain all the facts. QUESTION: I just want to follow too. We asked you this earlier, but I want to ask again. You said that U.S. officials made it explicitly clear the U.S. would not support a coup. How do you account then for this top Defense Department official telling the New York Times, quote, "We were not discouraging people. We were sending informal, subtle signals that we don't like this guy. We did say, 'No, don't you dare.'"
FLEISCHER: And what's the name of that official?
QUESTION: Official is unnamed.
FLEISCHER: Then how do you know he's top?
QUESTION: It says...
QUESTION: ... according to the New York Times.
FLEISCHER: You don't know the person's name. The person obviously doesn't have enough confidence in what he said to say it on the record. And that same story you're citing also has other officials saying that it is not the case, and you have me saying on the record that it's not the case.
FLEISCHER: So I think if you can establish the name of this person who now, without a name, you're calling top, we can further that. But I think you need to dig into that.
QUESTION: ... question about working on a referendum. Any discussion about working with the opposition leaders on pushing any kind of referendum to seek the removal of (inaudible)?
FLEISCHER: I have no information on that. It's the first I've heard anything on that topic.
QUESTION: Ari, does the president have any comments on this new videotape from Osama bin Laden, because last week I asked if your state -- especially defense -- that why they're not talking about more Osama bin Laden? He said because we have not heard from him no more than we did. Now, somebody is listening and heard somewhere and that's why the (inaudible) and now tape is there. And number two, there are people still in Pakistan who are carrying the photograph of Osama bin Laden and now during this election, a referendum coming. Now, that means he's still alive in that part of the world (inaudible) on that border. FLEISCHER: Well, as to the tape, it's just unclear what that tape represents; the timing of the tape, when it was made. And so, I don't think there's anything conclusive to report on that. But, obviously, one thing that is known is that hatred is still alive and that hatred is aimed at harming the United States and the United States allies and that's why this war against terrorism remains a very important issue regardless of Osama bin Laden's status.
QUESTION: Do you think Osama bin Laden is still alive?
FLEISCHER: We don't know.
QUESTION: Are you analyzing that tape to find out when it was made? I mean, there's plans and whatnot in a bag down...
FLEISCHER: I have not gotten any reports. I can only imagine that's being done. I have not gotten any reports on it.
QUESTION: (OFF-MIKE) tomorrow's speech, will there be any new policy, any new shift in what he's doing at...
FLEISCHER: Tomorrow, the president at the Virginia Military Institute will give a speech. They'll have a war update. And that's all I'm prepared to say at this time. I imagine we'll have some more information to share tomorrow, but that's all I can indicate right now.
QUESTION: Any new material in it?
FLEISCHER: I think you'll hear some new thoughts from the president.
FLEISCHER: The meeting with the president of Lebanon is going to be discussed. It's to discuss the prospects of being peace to the region. Of course, the Arab summit, which, for the first time, recognized the proposed recognition of Israel's right to exist in secure borders along with the pull-back to the 67 borders was a topic that came up in Beirut at the Arab summit.
And so, there will be a variety of ideas that I think we can talk through at this meeting with the president and the president of Lebanon on how to continue the efforts to find peace in the region.
QUESTION: And quickly, just in general, why is it important to update the American public (OFF-MIKE)?
FLEISCHER: Well, the president has always said that in order to successfully prosecute the war against terrorism it's vital to have the support of the American people. And to have the support of the American people, the president will continue, from time to time, as he sees fit, to reach out and discuss with the country the latest developments and his thoughts about where we need to go and why we need to go there. So it's what democracies do, is the short answer.
QUESTION: Ari, a few years ago, Suha Arafat praised suicide bombings, said she only wished she had a child who could be a suicide bomber. Could you tell us whether that casts doubt on her husband's renunciation of killer bombings? And could you also comment on the fact that a growing number of Saudi officials are now praising these bombings and what that tells us about the Saudi government?
FLEISCHER: Anybody who praises these homicide bombings will find themselves in sharp disagreement with the president of the United States. The president has said unequivocally that these people are not martyrs, they're murderers. That's the president's view, and that's based on the fact that these people go into civilian areas with the sole purpose of killing innocents. And the president has spoken out about it in as clear a moral tone as can be. Anybody who expresses another point of view will that the president of the United States disagrees.
QUESTION: But, Ari, with all due respect, that really wasn't the question. The question was, what do the comments from Suha Arafat tell us about the credibility of her husband, and what do the comments from the Saudis in praise of these bombings tell us about the credibility of the Saudi government on the issue?
FLEISCHER: Well, on the question of what specifically was said with Chairman Arafat's wife, the whole purpose of Secretary Powell's mission to the region is to find out what the prospects are to bring people together to achieve peace. And I think the results of that will speak for itself over time as the secretary continues his efforts to bridge the differences between the parties. And the president looks forward to have a full-fledged range of conversations with Saudi leaders and we'll do so.
QUESTION: Just a quick follow on Ron's questions. You said there'd be new thoughts tomorrow. No new policy...
FLEISCHER: Yes, I'm just not going to go beyond any of that to preview something tomorrow today. That'll be something the president wants to talk about tomorrow. He's still looking at various drafts of his speech, and so you'll have that tomorrow.
QUESTION: Ari, do you expect, when the president meets with the prime minister from Lebanon, that he'll pick up Secretary of State Powell's conversation about cross-border attacks at the blue line as well?
FLEISCHER: I anticipate that'll be a topic they discuss tomorrow as well.
QUESTION: If I can follow, does the president expect Secretary Powell to return from the Middle East with a cease-fire agreement in hand?
FLEISCHER: Well, as Secretary Powell himself said, he thought that would be a difficult thing to achieve on this trip. His trip is not quite over, he has additional important meetings that remain. As the secretary said this morning, he cited progress. There'll be continued contacts that he'll have with various parties.
The whole purpose of his trip was to try to bring about a dimunition in the violence so that the chances of having meaningful political talks that can begin can be enhanced, and that's the goal of his mission.
FLEISCHER: Well, he's not complete with his mission yet.
QUESTION: Does the massive pro-Israel demonstration yesterday have any impact on the administration? And also, have you finished analyzing the alleged Arafat papers yet which appeared to authorize terrorism acts?
FLEISCHER: One, I think that the march yesterday is another sign of the important passions that people feel on this issue. And the president has been very clear that Israel has no better, greater friend than the United States. Israel is an ally, Israel is a democratically elected government, and the president stands strong in his support for Israel and Israel's democracy.
And there are important voices to be listened to on many sides, and that is why the president is working so hard to bring peace to the region, to help protect the cause of the Palestinian people who have not been well served by their leadership, the Palestinian people who deserve a state while recognizing Israel's right to live in security.
And so that's a part of our American system of democracy and it played out yesterday in fine a tradition as our nation has known.
QUESTION: The Arafat papers?
FLEISCHER: I have no new information on that, sir. David?
QUESTION: Ari, yesterday, you said that the Israelis were making some progress with the announcement that they would be pulling out of two of the cities. Of course, it was now, I guess, 10 days ago today that the president said that they had to pull out from all of the West Bank areas they were occupying, without delay, which (inaudible) then interpreted to mean now.
Ten days out, what you don't have is any commitment on Ramallah or any of the other major cities. You've got a commitment on two of them. Does that fulfill the president's definition of without delay, or the national security adviser's definition of now?
FLEISCHER: Well, the withdrawals are continuing, as Israel indicated. And when the president gave his speech in the Rose Garden, the president laid out in very clear terms the responsibilities for all three parties to uphold in order to bring peace to the region. And the purpose of the secretary's visit is to impress on each of the parties -- the Israelis, the Palestinian Authority, and the Arab nations -- the importance of each of them doing exactly what the president called on them to do. It did not happen immediately. It did not happen overnight. The president is still committed to making it happen. And the reason he is, is what alternative do these three parties have, what choice do these three parties have, other than to follow the road map that the president outlined in the Rose Garden?
The alternative is war. And that's not an alternative that is acceptable to anybody. And that is why the president is working so hard to hold the three accountable, to urge them to take these steps, so they can unwind from the violence that they're currently in, which for the people in the region -- they will tell you right now -- feels like a war. And that's why the president is so dedicated to fulfilling this. And the president wishes that everybody would have immediately said yes and done what he asked. They didn't.
That will not stop him from committing himself to finding a way to bring about peace in the region, no matter how long it takes.
QUESTION: Just to make sure that I understand what the president wants and what he's getting, the president will not consider his call on Israel, one-third of that triumvirate that you described, to be complete until they are out of Ramallah and the other West Bank cities. It is not sufficient in the White House's view to simply declare that you will be out of...
FLEISCHER: No. The president's call was for Israel to withdraw from all of the areas they occupied in the West Bank as a result of the recent incursions. The president's call remains.
QUESTION: OK. And you do not yet have a schedule for anything other than Jenin and Nablus?
FLEISCHER: What the prime minister indicated to the president was that they would be out of Jenin and Nablus within a week, and Jenin even earlier than that, that they are working very hard to resolve the hold-off on the Church of Nativity. Once that is resolved, I think it's fair to say that Israel anticipates a very quick withdrawal from Bethlehem, and they're working very hard to resolve issues that would allow Israel to pull out of Ramallah as well.
The prime minister made a commitment that he would do so expeditiously in his previous phone call with the president, and the president is continuing to press to make that happen as well as to make the Palestinian Authority and the Arab allies see the importance of focusing on their responsibilities so they can step back and unwind from the present violence so that political talks can begin in a meaningful way.
QUESTION: Ari, can you saying anything more about the kind of progress that Colin Powell is making? And if he is making progress, why is he coming home now?
FLEISCHER: First of all, he's coming home because the president and the National Security Council are going to get a full report from the secretary. The secretary was never sent there to be there on an open-ended mission. He was sent there for a lengthy mission. And the mission is still ongoing. And so the secretary used those words this morning at his additional meetings, and I'm going to leave it at that. He still has additional meetings, and we'll all monitor it carefully.
QUESTION: And can you say nothing further about the kinds of progress that he's making?
FLEISCHER: I'm going to leave it at that. That was the secretary's word. He said it for a reason. And he has additional meetings and additional contacts and we'll let that develop.
QUESTION: Ari, why haven't we heard from the president in, I believe, what is now eight days? He's been accused, especially by members of his own party and many conservative activists, of violating his own principles and to perhaps even distancing himself from the process or being uneasy about his administration meeting with Yasser Arafat. What can you tell us about...
FLEISCHER: You know, I'm not sure what you mean. I heard the president last night talk about this topic on his visit. So the president has addressed this topic, he has talked about it. And as I indicated, the president will be making some remarks tomorrow as well.
QUESTION: And you expect him to address the current status in the Middle East tomorrow?
FLEISCHER: I would anticipate that will be a topic that comes up.
QUESTION: Now, could I ask one other question about this? The rally yesterday, in which Mr. Wolfowitz spoke on behalf of the president, was it the president that actually asked him to speak at that rally? And what does the administration make of the fact that the crowd roundly booed Mr. Wolfowitz on several occasions? Do you interpret that as opposition to the administration's approach?
FLEISCHER: One, I think Secretary Wolfowitz did an excellent job delivering the president's message, and the secretary was very well received for virtually everything he said, with one instance, one exception. And I think what that shows is the deep passions that run on all sides of this issue, and that is why this president, understanding how deep the passions run on many sides, is focused on finding a solution to the problem of peace in the Middle East. And the secretary, what he said yesterday, was fully reflective of everything that the president believes and thinks, and the secretary did a very good job delivering that message at a time of great unease for many communities in the United States, including the Jewish community.
QUESTION: So the president asked him?
FLEISCHER: He went with the White House blessing, and so I assure you...
QUESTION: One last thing, if I may. You said that American officials explicitly told Venezuelan opposition leaders that the U.S. would not support a coup. That suggests that someone asked the U.S. to support a coup.
FLEISCHER: No. What it suggests is, as any good diplomat will know by keeping their ear to the ground in the nation that they represent or that they are representing the United States in that nation, that it's no surprise to anybody, including your correspondents in the region, that in Venezuela for the last several months there has been talk of violence and coup. So that's what a diplomat is supposed to do, is keep his ear to the ground in the region and deliver a straight message from the United States government that that is not our policy and we do not expect that to be the case.
QUESTION: Are you saying that no one asked the U.S. to support a coup?
FLEISCHER: Not that anybody's brought to my attention, no.
QUESTION: ... had some advance knowledge there was a coup brewing.
FLEISCHER: I said the diplomats had their ears to the ground and there was talk, and as your correspondents in Venezuela will report as well, and in the conversations they had, they explicitly told opposition leaders that the United States would not support a coup.
QUESTION: Well, we had advance knowledge that something was in the works.
FLEISCHER: I think you have to be careful about advance knowledge of a specific act and general talk of unease in a nation like Venezuela that has been marked by a very difficult internal democratic system.
QUESTION: You had advance knowledge that there was the possibility that something in general was...
PHILLIPS: Daily White House briefing with White House press secretary Ari Fleischer. Two subjects at hand there with reporters. First, Venezuela; second, the Middle East.
The Bush administration confirming that, in recent months, it had met opponents of the Venezuelan president, Hugo Chavez, who was briefly ousted in a 48-hour weekend coup, but denied that it had encouraged a coup. The other topic, the Middle East. Secretary of State Colin Powell winds up a nine-day trip to the Middle East. Apparently, according to reporters, with little to show for his efforts, asking questions with regard to that, the White House continuing to say that Powell is attempting to create an environment in which political discussion can begin and be meaningful. But how that would be done remains unclear.
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