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White House Press Briefing

Aired December 16, 2002 - 12:26   ET


WOLF BLITZER, CNN ANCHOR: Let's get right to the White House press briefing room. That's where the Press Secretary Ari Fleischer is answering reporters' questions.

ARI FLEISCHER, WHITE HOUSE PRESS SECY.: ... September 11, 2001, and the events that led up to it.

"Tom Kean is a leader respected for integrity, fairness and good judgment. I am confident he will work to make the commission's investigation thorough.

"It is important that we uncover every detail and learn every lesson of September 11.

Governor Kean (ph) served on the advisory board for the president's initiative on race for 1997 to 1998. He served as vice chairman of the U.S. delegation to the Fourth U.N. World Conference on Women in 1995. He lead the U.S. delegation for the World Conference on Education For All in Thailand in 1990. That's a statement by the president. With that I'm happy to take questions.

QUESTION: Were you able to follow-up on the New York Times story that we have a new disinformation campaign going on for our gameplan against the allies?

FLEISCHER: I've looked into this, and let me say to you -- well, there is widespread recognition throughout the administration that the United States has an important role in the world in better communicating America's message of hope and opportunity.

It is important that that is a message that is shared throughout the world in friendly nations and other places as well. The president has the expectation that any program that is created in his administration will be based on facts, and that's what he would expect to be carried out in any program that is created in any entity of the government.


FLEISCHER: Well, beyond that, in terms of the specifics of that story, I'm not in a position to evaluate those.


QUESTION: ... if this is a major plan to hit all the allies and friends.

FLEISCHER: Well, I think you need to address your questions to the Pentagon, and I'm not sure you should presume that this is anything that has moved even very far forward. Very often these things get discussed at levels that never reach the top levels. And these are issues and ideas that are being discussed, but I would caution you about any specifics that you may have read as to what exactly they entail. Any of the details you may want to talk to the Pentagon about. But you know the president's expectations.

QUESTION: You don't think our story's getting across, the truth is getting across enough to the world?

FLEISCHER: Well, I think it will forever be a matter for democracies to communicate their message around the world, particularly in the face of closed governments.


FLEISCHER: Well, that's not true. The message of democracies is often stopped as a result of nations that don't have a free press or an open press, nations that don't welcome ideas. And that's always a challenge for democracy, it's always a challenge for the message of the world to be received by people around the world. Not everybody is as tolerant, as open as the United States.

QUESTION: So you're going to penetrate their communication systems?

FLEISCHER: No, I don't think that's anticipated.

QUESTION: Ari, what's the president's reaction to former Vice President Gore announcing that he's not going to run?

FLEISCHER: Well, this is an internal matter for the Democratic Party. And somebody will emerge from the Democratic field who will ultimately seek to raise taxes on the American people. But that's a decision that the Democrats will make as they select a nominee.

QUESTION: But he didn't have a personal reaction at all?

FLEISCHER: No, I think the president is rather busy focused on the job that he was elected to do by the American people and...

QUESTION: How about internal matters in the Republican Party?


FLEISCHER: I'm sorry?

QUESTION: Well, you said he didn't want to comment on internal matters to the Democratic Party, how about internal matters...

FLEISCHER: Oh, I thought you were making a reference to somebody running for president. I thought you knew something I didn't. QUESTION: I just, given that Gore won the popular vote by some 500,000 votes first time around, the president is not a little bit disappointed that he won't have...

FLEISCHER: I think the president is looking forward, and the president is focused on the job that he is doing right now for the American people, and the president is very respectful of the Democratic process, including the Democratic Primary process. I think there'll be no shortage of candidates.

QUESTION: Yes or no, can you say whether the president wants Senator Lott to remain as majority leader?

FLEISCHER: We're right back to everything that I said last week about the topic and the president's focus on improving race relations throughout America.

QUESTION: (OFF-MIKE) repeat what you said last week about the White House thinking that he should remain.

FLEISCHER: The president does not think he needs to resign. I repeat what I said last week and what I've said every day.

QUESTION: (OFF-MIKE) focus on improving race relations with Trent Lott as majority leader of the United States Senate.

FLEISCHER: Well, the president is going to do just what he did last week, and the president is going to continue to elevate the country and to speak out about the bigger picture of the importance of improving race relations for all Americans.

That's one of the jobs of the presidency, is to lift up the debate and to focus on where the country is vis-a-vis race, where we have to go, and how we can possibly get there. And that's why the president thought it was so important to speak out, and speak in public, as he did.

QUESTION: Can Trent Lott, as majority leader, help him do that?

FLEISCHER: Well, again, the president has made his statement about it, and the president looks forward to working with everybody to help America reach that day.

QUESTION: The last time I looked, the president was the leader of his party, as well as commander in chief, and a number of other hats -- why wouldn't he seek to give direction to his party at a time like this about the person he would like to see as the majority leader?

FLEISCHER: The direction the president has given the nation and the party is about improving race relations, and that's where the president is focused.

QUESTION: So it doesn't matter whether Trent Lott is a leader or not, as long as race relations are improved? FLEISCHER: Well, again, the president made clear that he found the remarks to be offensive and repugnant, and he spoke out clearly about them. He thought that was very important to do.

QUESTION: So I guess it's important that we get somebody other than Trent Lott, if I'm reading you correctly.

FLEISCHER: You've heard everything I said.

QUESTION: Ari, two quick questions. One, now North Korea is seeking nuclear help from China after Pakistan stopped helping. So how much is the president, you think, of the U.S. worried about China's and North Korea's military buildup that might one day...

FLEISCHER: Well, if you recall, when President Jiang Zemin visited the president in Texas just two or three months ago, president Jiang said publicly that China opposes any nuclearization on the Korean peninsula. So I think the premise of the question is not quite right.

FLEISCHER: China is working with the United States to make certain that we can resolve the situation in North Korea peacefully and diplomatically. And that is being done in concert with South Korea and Japan and Russia as well.

QUESTION: What is the future of now I-245? The president (OFF- MIKE) sign it and get out of the Senate.

FLEISCHER: The president is still hoping that it can get done in a new Congress. The president thinks that's an important immigration initiative to help give people opportunities to come to the United States where willing employers have positions for immigrants. And it was passed in one body and not the other last year. The president would like to see action taken on that this year.

QUESTION: One quick attempt to get on Lott, and then a question about Governor Kean. How is it consistent for the White House, for the president say to actively recruit former Mayor Riordan to run for governor of California, for Caldwell and Dick Cheney to call potential candidates in Minnesota and say, "Clear the field for Norm Coleman," calls that were made for the good of the Republican party. How is it then consistent to say that the president will not comment on whether he thinks as some senators have said there should be a new leadership election in the Senate for the good of the party?

FLEISCHER: The president makes judgments all the time about what he believes is the appropriate procedures to take.

And the steps that he has taken here were focused on improving race relations. And that's why the president's focus is on that bigger picture. That's what the president worries about, spends his time focusing on. We think that's where the country needs to move and advance.

QUESTION: In the selection of Governor Kean, I assume there have been contacts with him about business dealings or any complications as came up with Senator Mitchell and Mr. Kissinger (inaudible). Does this experience, in having the problems with Mr. Kissinger and Senator Mitchell, convince the White House at all that once the commission is up and running that perhaps looking ahead there should be some conversation in Washington about disclosure rules and how we handle all these things?

FLEISCHER: Well, on the first part of your question, of course the same rules will apply to all the commissioners, and that means they have to follow the ethics provisions. And that will all be looked into and is in the process of being looked into for all the commissioners.

On the broader question, I'll have to see if there is any serious discussion inside the White House about that. But I think that it's important for the government to welcome people back into public service who can contribute to public service. And I think that people want to be careful that we must follow all ethics provisions, but we also want to make certain that people don't have a disincentive to ever serve their country again.

And the commission has lost the services of two good and able people, Senator Mitchell and Secretary Kissinger. Nevertheless, the president is moving forward now with these appointments because of his interest in getting the commission up and running.

And Governor Kean, I know, will be reaching out and speaking to congressional leaders today. I anticipate he'll be speaking to Lee Hamilton as well. The president thinks it's important to get the commission moving.

QUESTION: Does the president feel that Senator Lott's appearance on Black Entertainment Television tonight is improving race relations?

FLEISCHER: The president is going to focus on his job and what it takes to improve race relations across the country. The president, broadly speaking, thinks it's helpful and appropriate for all individuals who are in a position of leadership to speak out and educate the country and keep the mission of making progress on race relations moving in the forward direction.

QUESTION: Does he think that Senator Lott's appearance is helpful?

FLEISCHER: Again, I've answered in a much broader context.

QUESTION: Ari, along that line, Bob Johnson of BET is one of the persons that Trent Lott is supposed to be talking with to help make amends to the African American community. Did the president have anything to do with Bob Johnson himself, because Bob Johnson is a part of the Bush administration's Social Security commission and he and President Bush, I understand, have a pleasant...

FLEISCHER: I'm not sure I understand. Did the president have anything to do with Bob Johnson?

QUESTION: Did he talk to Trent Lott, saying, you know, "Bob Johnson would be a good person for you to talk to. You know, he has...

FLEISCHER: Yes. I have no idea.

QUESTION: Well, what are the president's thoughts about Bob Johnson, because they apparently have a nice cordial relationship, according to...

FLEISCHER: The president thought he was a very able commissioner on the Social Security Commission and welcomed his support in working on ways to help younger workers have opportunities in Social Security in the future.

QUESTION: But I'm talking about Bob Johnson as a black man who I guess would be made...

FLEISCHER: The president renders his judgment on people based on who they are and what they do and their service to the country. And that's the context in which the president registered his thoughts about Mr. Johnson.

QUESTION: Well, a civil rights leaders -- on another subject, on the same subject, though -- civil rights leaders this weekend are very upset about the fact that the White House continues to say that they are concerned about race relations and you have not yet talked to Kweisi Mfume, the Congressional Black Caucus, the Urban League about this matter or another matter.

FLEISCHER: Well, I dismiss that. The president has indeed met with the Congressional Black Caucus, as you know, and there are very many congressional caucuses of all kinds that have interests and issues that seek meetings with the president, and not all of them have had a meeting the president, yet the president has met with the Congressional Black Caucus. He's met with a host of leaders of the African American and civil rights community during the term of his presidency, so I just dismiss the premise of the question.

QUESTION: First on Lott, then on Iraq. It appears that the White House is doing nothing to discourage a new vote on leadership, and doing nothing to try to rescue Senator Lott, if you would. Is that an accurate impression?

FLEISCHER: The president's focus is on improving race relations, and that's where the president has discussed this issue. And I've addressed the issue and you can ask different questions in a variety of combinations, but I'm going to give you the focus of where the president is.

QUESTION: So the White House taking no role at all in this, not attempting to exercise any influence over whether or not...

FLEISCHER: I think you're all very well aware of what the president's position is. I just expressed it emphatically.

QUESTION: OK. On Iraq, how would you characterize where they are at the moment, and would you clarify what responsibility we believe the Iraqis have, not just to disclose what they have, but to prove what happened to the stuff they used to have?

FLEISCHER: Well, the administration is continuing to take a look at the declaration that Iraq has provided. And I think other nations will also be weighing in on their views of what Iraq has provided. Hans Blix will be talking about what Iraq has provided, and this is all appropriately so under the terms of the resolution 1441, which sent the inspectors back into Iraq.

The declaration Iraq prepared was for the use of the members of the United Nations Security Council, and they will all be making their thoughts known shortly. The United States is continuing to review it, and as I indicated this morning, at the appropriate time, if we have something to say, you'll be advised to when that would be.

The president views this as a very important matter, for Iraq to show the world that it was serious this time -- Helen, can I help you?

The president thinks it's very important at this time for Iraq to show the world that it is serious about peace and that this time they take their determination from the United Nations Security Council seriously, and that they do indeed produce a document that is full, complete, and accurate.

QUESTION: But isn't there a greater responsibility than just saying, "Here's what we've got and what we don't have"?

QUESTION: Don't they also have to prove to the inspectors what happened to the things that they once had, that were declared, and to make sure that everyone knows how it is that they eliminated the WMD, if in fact they did, the WMD capability that ...

FLEISCHER: Well, I think is one of the issues that the declaration will shed light upon. It will be part of the review of the declaration to see what is not in it and to match it up against previous declarations, particularly the United Nations, the UNSCOM report in 1999, which right before they were thrown out, or right after they were thrown out, they did a final reporting on what they knew at the time that they were thrown out of Iraq.

And it will be important and it will shed some light on whether Iraq is telling the truth or not, to see what Iraq has said in this declaration and compare it to their past promises for what they have indeed destroyed.

QUESTION: I gather Hans Blix may be in New York this week to brief on the status of the inspections. Do you anticipate that he will also brief the U.S. separately or he'll come and talk to the president about how things are going?

FLEISCHER: Well, he has repeatedly talked to many of the nations on the Security Council, especially the P-5. If there is something, we'll, obviously, report it to you, but I'm not aware of any meeting at this point.

QUESTION: (OFF-MIKE) the council this week, I guess, there's some anticipation that of moving through the next stage in the process of some sort of diplomatic consultations after that? What happens after that?

FLEISCHER: Well, I don't want to make any guesses or predictions yet. We're still, as the United States, in the process of still looking at the document, and so we want to come to our assessments about what is in it and what is not in it before we can anticipate what the next step could possibly be.

QUESTION: A number of people have proposed Warren Rudman as chairman for the 9/11 commission job. The president obviously decided to go in a different direction today.

What was the objection to Mr. Rudman? Why ...

FLEISCHER: Well, as always when it comes to personnel announcements, I don't speculate about people who may or may not have been considered. I am here to discuss with you the people, or the person in this case, that the president did choose and select.

Any of the announcements the president makes on personnel I would never get into other people who may or may not have been considered for any reason.

QUESTION: Was there a specific objection or problem with maybe Senator Rudman as the potential chairman?

FLEISCHER: I'll share with you the reasons that the president has selected Governor Kean.

QUESTION: If the challenge were to emerge in the Republican Senate to Trent Lott's leadership, would the president stay neutral, would he take sides, would he keep hands off?

FLEISCHER: Again, the same question coming a different way. No, again the president's focus is going to be on improving race relations in the United States.

The president does not believe that Trent Lott needs to resign. The president thinks that what Trent Lott said was wrong, and the president found those remarks offensive.

And the president said that Trent Lott was right to apologize, and the president is going to continue to do his job the American people elected him to do, which is to focus on how the -- the big picture for this country, and to improve race relations by bringing people together. And that's going to be the focus of the president.

QUESTION: Ari, Senator Nickels has said that he gave the White House a heads up on Saturday; then on Sunday, he was going to say that Trent Lott (OFF-MIKE) Did anybody at the White House try to dissuade Senator Nickels from making those remarks, or does the White House regard this as an internal Senate matter?

FLEISCHER: The call was described to me as a notification call, and nothing more.

QUESTION: Yes, but has anybody tried to -- I mean, you know, when you call the White House for notification...

FLEISCHER: It was left at -- it was a notification call.

QUESTION: And so it was being reported that Senator Lott asked Dr. Rice and Secretary of State Powell for statements of support and was told he had not been getting them. Can you tell us, one, is that true, and, two, what conclusions should be brought from that?

FLEISCHER: Yes. Actually on that I do not know. I have not to talked to either Dr. Rice or Secretary Powell about it.

QUESTION: A follow-up from just about everybody here.

FLEISCHER: You have a question about North Korea?


QUESTION: No, Super Bowl playoff picks.


QUESTION: Of course. You've said the president doesn't believe that Trent Lott needs to resign, but is he again in favor of or opposed to any potential challenge from within the Republican leadership in the Senate to Senator Lott's position as a majority leader?

FLEISCHER: I would refer you to the answer I gave on Friday's briefing when somebody asked that question for about the 10th time.


FLEISCHER: The same as I gave earlier today.

BLITZER: That's Ari Fleischer, the White House press secretary.


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