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CNN LIVE EVENT/SPECIAL

White House Press Conference

Aired December 17, 2002 - 12:52   ET

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

MILES O'BRIEN, CNN ANCHOR: Let's go over to the White House now. Ari Fleischer beginning his briefing. He's talking about the president's plans for a limited missile defense program.
ARI FLEISCHER, WHITE HOUSE PRESS SECY.: This was a broadbased gathering of free Iraqis opposed to the tyrannical regime in Baghdad. Free Iraqis came together in this conference to accomplish two objectives: to agree on a statement setting forth their vision of the future of Iraq and to form a follow-up advisory committee. They accomplished both of these objectives.

The conference represents a strong statement of the aspirations of Iraqis inside Iraq and throughout the world for a better future. We support these aspirations and look forward to working together with all Iraqis to help achieve them.

And with that, I'm happy to take your questions.

QUESTION: On missile defense, could you explain the timing a little bit? What prompted the president to make the announcement now?

FLEISCHER: The timing of the announcement is driven by the research programs that have been underway. The timing is really driven by the technology and the successful tests that have been underway that allowed the program to get to the point where it is today where the fielding can begin.

QUESTION: It had nothing to do with North Korea's announcement that it's pursuing...

FLEISCHER: No, the timing had nothing to do with that announcement. The timing -- not the timing, but the overall thrust of the policy, of course, is focused, as the president made clear in 1999 when he ran for office and promised to do what he is doing today, on threat assessment to the United States from potentially hostile nations or from rogue states.

QUESTION: And just one more. There have been eight tests, I think, over the last three years. Three have been failures, five successes. Is that ratio acceptable to the president?

FLEISCHER: Obviously, there have been improvements in the design and the technology that allowed it to get to the point where this step can be taken today to begin to field the system.

Secretary Rumsfeld will be addressing that in specifics and in great detail. Obviously, sufficient progress has been made for this important constructive step to be taken today.

QUESTION: Even though the most recent test just last week was a failure?

FLEISCHER: You have to look at it in the totality of all the tests which allowed them to take this step, of course.

QUESTION: Did the president get the message to you that directly or indirectly from Senator Lott that, if he was forced to step down from his leadership position, he would also leave the Senate?

FLEISCHER: I can't speak to any messages that Senator Lott is saying. I don't know everything Senator Lott may or may not be saying on it, so I don't know the answer to that.

I'm not aware that there was any conversation between the president and Senator Lott about that.

QUESTION: Or from anyone representing the senator?

FLEISCHER: There's nothing that's been brought to my attention, no.

QUESTION: Has the president issued an unlawful order to the CIA to commit assassinations?

FLEISCHER: Are you saying has the president issued an unlawful order? The answer is, no.

QUESTION: Did you story on Sunday about assassinations?

FLEISCHER: I heard your question about has the president done something that's against the law.

QUESTION: OK, the question is has he issued an order on assassinations?

FLEISCHER: I will not discuss any of the directives that the president may issue.

QUESTION: So you won't answer the question?

FLEISCHER: I never discuss intelligence directives and whether or not they exist or don't exist.

QUESTION: Wouldn't it be unlawful if there were an order on assassinations?

FLEISCHER: Surely, the president would not do anything that is against the law.

QUESTION: Does the executive order President Ford signed prohibiting the United States from assassinations stand?

FLEISCHER: Yes, it does. QUESTION: On Senator Lott, he said yesterday that he supports affirmative action across the board. Does the president support affirmative action across the board?

FLEISCHER: The president supports affirmative access, the president thinks it's very important to reach out and to help people in our society so they can have every opportunity, and I think the best way to understand exactly what the president means by it when he says that is to take a look at what he did as governor of Texas.

And, for instance, in the applications process for the University of Texas school system the president made a change in policy so that the top 10 percent of students in all schools would automatically get entrance into the University of Texas school programs.

That has actually resulted in a nice increase in minority participation and enrollment at universities and post-graduate studies. That's what the president has done and that's what he supports.

QUESTION: So he doesn't support what Senator Lott apparently now supports, which is affirmative action across the board?

FLEISCHER: I can only report to you what the president supports.

QUESTION: Are you making a distinction between affirmative access, which is what you've said, and affirmative action?

FLEISCHER: I explained to you exactly as the president explains it. You've heard this statement from the president many times.

QUESTION: (OFF-MIKE) the same thing?

FLEISCHER: Not in a position to evaluate anybody else's proposal. I can share with you what the president believes on his.

QUESTION: And you're calling it affirmative access?

FLEISCHER: That's correct.

QUESTION: Is it OK for the White House to wait until January 6 to decide the fate of Senator Lott or would you rather move that up?

FLEISCHER: The president feels very strongly about issues involving race relations in America and the need for all of us to work together to improve race relations in America. And that is why the president spoke out in Philadelphia and said what he said about Senator Lott's comments.

The president, and I reiterate, does not think Senator Lott needs to resign.

Senators have indicated that they are calling for meeting on January 6. And the White House will not comment on that meeting or anything leading up to that meeting vis-a-vis anything these senators may or may not do or call for at a potential meeting. The president's comments in Philadelphia and the president's comments throughout are focused on lifting up the nation to deal with issues pertaining to race. And I will not comment beyond that about a potential meeting on January 6.

QUESTION: (OFF-MIKE) telling you that this could drag on another three weeks.

FLEISCHER: The White House has no comment on the potential meeting.

QUESTION: Can I just follow up? Does the president believe that Senator Lott is the right person to lead the Republican Party in the Senate, given the agenda and the values that the president laid for forcefully in Philadelphia?

FLEISCHER: I reiterate: The president differed strongly with the statement that Senator Lott made. And he has said what Senator Lott said was wrong, and that Senator Lott rightly apologized. The president views Senator Lott as a friend. The president has respect for all senators, including Senator Lott. The president differed directly with the statement made by (ph) Senator Lott.

QUESTION: First question is, as the president, what has this administration done -- what has President Bush done to meet the needs of minorities?

FLEISCHER: Well, I think when you take a look at the administration's record on helping minorities, it's very broadbased and helpful. And I will cite for you several areas in which the administration has taken action.

And it begins with helping all Americans, because we are one country and we are all in this country together. And that comes to improving the economy; so we have moved from recession to growth. It comes from improving education; that the president's education bill particularly had a focus on those who would be left behind, particularly in some of our nation's urban schools where people need the most help. And the president has focused on what he has often called the next civil rights movement, which is to improve education for all Americans, particularly those who have been abandoned by the system.

Beyond that, the president has moved very aggressively through the course of his administration to strongly enforce civil rights laws.

And I cite for you the settlement of some of the most difficult disputes that have wrangled the civil rights community and the government for decades, including the dispute over segregation in Yonkers, which has been successfully resolved by this administration, by the dispute in Cincinnati where race riots broke out and the successful intervention of the administration to work directly with the community in Cincinnati as well as the police to bring people together, to enforce our laws, where the administration has been very aggressive on all of those matters. The Department of Housing and Urban Development has moved aggressively in all kinds of housing and public accommodation cases, and the administration has also prosecuted, through the Department of Justice, 350 hate crime investigations and brought 80 state, local and federal charges on these matters.

(CROSSTALK)

QUESTION: ... a large number of black Republicans today and yesterday calling for Mr. Lott's dismissal, removal, resignation. Has that concerned the White House at all?

FLEISCHER: Again, I've commented on the matter to the degree I have comment, and you know where the president's thoughts are on this.

QUESTION: (OFF-MIKE) to those comments and taking them under consideration?

FLEISCHER: The president has commented on it very fully.

QUESTION: Two quick questions. One, now administration will list two more countries on the list of 18 -- makes 20 -- that (inaudible) Now some scientists and some countries are worried also that, when they have the conferences, when they invite people (inaudible) might have to move their conferences out of the United States and that will not serve the purpose of their conference.

And also some people are saying that missiles are concerning this country (OFF-MIKE) Where do we go from there?

FLEISCHER: I think what you are seeing is that government is reacting very strongly to the events of September 11th to make sure that we do two things: One is respect the rights of immigrants and visitors to come to our nation. We are a better nation in the president's judgment as a result of having people visit the United States. We want to do so in a way that protects the American people and all those who would visit here.

Terrorist actions don't only kill Americans on our soil. They kill foreigners who are visiting our soil or who are temporarily residing on our soil. As we saw in the attack on the World Trade Center, many foreign citizens were killed in that attack.

And so we are taking actions to make certain that people come to the United States and that we welcome them to the United States but we do so in a way that is protective of our citizens and our guests.

(CROSSTALK)

QUESTION: ... confirm a report that the president (OFF-MIKE) has said that capture or kill any Al Qaida network (ph) anywhere around the globe. That means also Osama bin Laden (OFF-MIKE)

FLEISCHER: Of course, there is a battle in Afghanistan, and the administration, the government and the American people are fighting this war in Afghanistan and throughout the world. And the president would like to bring to justice those who would do harm to the United States.

QUESTION: A couple of quick ones on the Lott issue. I know you don't like the tea-leaf reading that is going on around town. The White House would prefer it not happen. But the speaker of the House was here for a meeting with the president this morning to discuss the legislative agenda next year. Presumably, if the president doesn't think Senator Lott should resign, he at least thinks today that Senator Lott will be the leader of the Republican Party.

Was Senator Lott invited to this meeting, or was it just a meeting with the speaker...

FLEISCHER: As you know, the White House is forever, and previous White Houses have done the exact same thing, have meetings sometimes that are bicameral, often that are just with the House, often that are just with the Senate.

Yesterday's meeting with the House leaders where the president discussed how to get prescription drugs to seniors and urged the House to take up legislation so we could work together to make that actually a priority that is carried out into law was just with the House. Today's meeting with the speaker was just with the House. There will be additional meetings.

QUESTION: In the prior Bush administration there was a House leadership race in which the Bush White House at the time made clear that it favored Ed Mattigan (ph) over a guy named Newt Gingrich. It didn't turn out the way the first Bush administration had hoped.

Has that experience come up at all in discussions in this White House, about how to handle this one? There are a couple of people around now who were then.

FLEISCHER: There's no conversation like that that I've overhead. I can just indicate to you again, the president is not going to comment on such a meeting.

But I would be remiss if I do not, Elizabeth (ph), remember a couple of other initiatives you asked me about what the president has done.

(LAUGHTER)

And I do want to remind you that the president was in Philadelphia, of course, to meet with a group of faith-based leaders who are trying to do -- fill in many of the holes in the social safety net that have hurt those who are low income and people who have been left behind. And again, this applies broadly to many Americans, but it is a particular initiative that has found tremendous and welcome support in the African American community.

And I would also be remiss, of course, if I do not discuss something. I informed you the other day the president looks forward to going to Africa, and one of the pieces of legislation he has signed into law is the African Growth and Opportunity Act, which has been a very helpful way of improving lives of people in Africa, which is also something near and dear to the heart of African Americans who call the United States their home. So, I wanted to share that with you in addition, of course, to the president's proposal to double funding for historically black colleges and universities.

QUESTION: (OFF-MIKE) suggesting that we have heard all we are going to from the president on this whole Lott business? And why shouldn't he exercise, the president, more leadership to get this controversy behind the country?

FLEISCHER: I think you've heard something from the president that was very powerful and very on point, and that was what a president should do, and that is focus on the bigger issue here, the bigger issue being race relations in America.

And when the president went to Philadelphia and spoke, he spoke a message that the American people look to their presidents to hear at times when there is information that has been said that is disputed and is wrong. And the president addressed it, addressed it forthrightly and directly. He said that what Senator Lott said was offensive.

And I think that was something that people look to their president to do, because it's the right thing to do. And the president was very pleased to say it, because the nation needed to hear it. It was the right thing to do and to say. And he said that Senator Lott apologized and rightfully so.

Now, if it moves beyond that, if there is, as senators have indicated, a potential meeting on January 6, that is not something the White House will comment on.

QUESTION: The Hastert meetings. Did the matter of Senator Lott come up in those meetings? And if so, how would you characterize...

(CROSSTALK)

FLEISCHER: Yes, I have not had a chance to talk to the president at any great length about the meeting. And so I've talked to him about the policy things that came up. And that's what I know about it.

QUESTION: Now, have you scheduled any meetings with the Senate to talk about the agenda for next year? After all, it was quite important a couple weeks ago when you had members of the Senate up here with members of the House to talk about what needed to be done early on. So what's the next step...

FLEISCHER: I would have to check with Congressional Affairs. But as you know, and it's been announced very publicly quite some time ago what the president's schedule, there are no meetings scheduled this week, but the president will depart for Camp David after that and then will leave for Crawford, Texas, and will return early next year.

QUESTION: So do you hope to have one before the president leaves for Africa, or is this -- or any meeting...

(CROSSTALK)

FLEISCHER: If you're asking about the schedule for the president in the second week of January, I think it's a little early for me to give you any indications.

QUESTION: One quick question on Iraq. You talked about this being a success, the meeting of the opposition.

QUESTION: If I understand it, though, some of the groups actually walked out, saying they were not represented and were not wanted. What can you tell us about that?

FLEISCHER: I think if you take a look at what was done in the conference that you will see that this conference represented a strong statement of Iraqi aspirations for a better future. We support those aspirations. And we look forward to working with Iraqis, both inside and outside Iraq, to achieve those objectives.

QUESTION: Ari, the president had some success in Texas as governor implementing his affirmative access program. What's the status of his efforts to implement that, those type of changes at the federal level?

FLEISCHER: Well, I think when you deal with issues like education and things of that nature, these are inherently state issues. There is no University of the United States in that sense.

QUESTION: (OFF-MIKE) executive orders, though, to implement that policy, a model on what he did as governor?

FLEISCHER: Well, what the president has done is taken a look at federal contracting. And the president has been very strong in his statements on contracting, that he and does believe that it's one of the purposes of federal contracts that they not be bundled the way that they are and they be shared more so that people who come from minority communities have greater access to federal contracting. That's one way he sees that the administration and government can use its power to give opportunities to those who may not have the equal or fuller opportunities as others.

QUESTION: Some of this could be accomplished legislatively. Did he talk to the speaker today about making affirmative access a legislative priority in the new Congress?

FLEISCHER: He talked with him about Medicare. He talked with him about a number of other issues. I'd have to take a look at the exact, specific list of details on it.

QUESTION: Ari, when you said the White House will not be commenting on this January 6 meeting, is the message you are sending that Republican senators are free to either keep or get rid of Senator Lott, that the White House regards this as a matter for the Republican senators to resolve?

FLEISCHER: The message that the White House is sending is no comment means no comment. And we're not commenting on it. (CROSSTALK)

FLEISCHER: That is well said and summarized.

QUESTION: Can you update us in any way on when the president might be commenting on the Iraqi report (inaudible)?

FLEISCHER: I will keep you informed about any future statements that the president or anybody else in the administration may make. As you know, we always do keep you advised about that. We look forward to hearing descriptions...

KYRA PHILLIPS, CNN ANCHOR: All right, you've been listening to White House Press Secretary Ari Fleischer brief reporters with the daily briefing.

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