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White House Press Conference

Aired December 20, 2002 - 12:48   ET


SUZANNE MALVEAUX, CNN WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: We just received a statement from the president, a written statement, his reaction to Lott's stepping down. I'm going to read it for you verbatim here. It says -- quote -- "I respect the very difficult decision Trent made on behalf of the American people. As majority and minority leader of the Senate, Trent Lott improved education for the American people and led the way in secure securing tax relief, he Strengthened national security and stood for a bold and effective foreign policy."
He says, "Trent is a valued friend and a man I respect. I am pleased he will continue to serve our nation in the Senate and I look forward to working with him on our agenda to make America safer, stronger and better."

This statement just coming from the president just moments ago. Ari Fleischer is going to be speaking on the matter. Of course, we're going to try to get as much background information as possible, but what we are told is even the closest aides were not aware of the news he was stepping down, Trent Lott was stepping down, and of course, as you know, Wolf, this was a very delicate balancing act for this White House.

On the one hand, of course, saying that the president did not wants for him to resign, they did not feel that the White House should be a part of that process.

And let's take a listen to Ari Fleischer right now.

ARI FLEISCHER, WHITE HOUSE PRESS SECY.: Good afternoon. Let me give you a report on the president's day, and then I have a statement by the president I'd like to read.

The president began this morning with a phone call to the president-elect, Roh Moo Hyun, of South Korea. The president called President-elect Roh to extend his warm congratulations on Mr. Roh's victory in South Korea's December 19th presidential election. The president and the president-elect agreed to work closely together to promote peace on the Korean Peninsula and to further strengthen the U.S.-South Korean alliance.

President-elect Roh accepted President Bush's invitation to visit Washington at his earliest convenience. In the meantime, the president and the president-elect discussed the possibility of sending representatives to each other's capitals to address issues of mutual concern.

The president and president-elect exchanged warm holiday greetings to each other and to the families, both nations and people.

FLEISCHER: The president after that had his usual round of intelligence briefings this morning, followed by an FBI briefing. Then he convened a meeting of the National Security Council.

The president, as we speak, is having his regular lunch with the vice president.

And then this afternoon the president looks forward to meeting with the quartet, a group of leaders, to discuss the path to making progress in the Middle East. The president remains firmly committed to his position that a two-state solution of an Israel that can live in security along with a state of Palestine side by side is the only viable solution to find lasting peace in the Middle East.

And finally, I'd like to read a statement by the president.

"I respect the very difficult decision Trent has made on behalf of the American people. As majority and minority leader of the Senate, Trent Lott improved education for the American people, he led the way in securing tax relief, he strengthened our national security and he stood for a bold and effective foreign policy.

"Trent is a valued friend and a man I respect. I am pleased he will continue to serve our nation in the Senate, and I look forward to working with him on our agenda to make America safer, stronger and better."

That is a statement by the president.

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

QUESTION: Ari, a question about that: Has the president spoken to Senator Lott today? And before you answer that -- that statement doesn't indicate this -- as head of the Republican Party, does President Bush believe that Senator Lott stepping down as majority leader is the best thing for the Republican Party going forward?

FLEISCHER: The president called Senator Lott shortly after 11 o'clock this morning, and the president communicated to Senator Lott what you just heard in that statement I read. It was a warm conversation and...


FLEISCHER: No, shortly after 11 o'clock the president called Senator Lott. Second part of your question?

QUESTION: As head of the Republican Party, because his statement doesn't indicate this, given everything that's happened, given the president's criticism of Senator Lott's remarks, does the president believe this is the best thing to have happened for the Republican Party going forward?

FLEISCHER: The president, as he said in his remarks, said he understood and respected the decision Trent Lott made for the country. As you know, the president did not think that Trent Lott needed to resign. Trent Lott has come to this conclusion, and the president respects it.

The president is going to continue to work with Trent Lott and with all senators, in both parties, on behalf of an agenda that is good for the country, as well as good, of course, for the Republican Party.

QUESTION: What about the question, though? As head of the Republican Party, does he believe this is what's best for the party? I didn't ask if he respected him, I asked if he thinks it's best.

FLEISCHER: Just as I indicated to you before, the president didn't think he needed to resign, and I wasn't going to indicate with any type of comments about any of the eventualities that could have taken place leading up to the January 6th election. The president offers no judgment on that. The president, as I said, understands and respects the decision.

QUESTION: Couple things. One, you were cut off before you could give us more information from the phone call, besides it being a warm conversation. How long was it? What else did the president say to him?

And have you been able to determine whether or not anybody in the White House was given a courtesy call from the senator or his staff before news leaked out in the press that he was resigning?

FLEISCHER: The conversation lasted approximately 10 minutes. And as I indicated, it was a warm conversation, a good conversation. The two spoke as friends. It's not my place, of course, to characterize what Senator Lott has said. What the president said here in his public statement is what he said to Senator Lott.

In terms of the president's notification, the president was notified of it as the meeting that he was in in the National Security Council broke up. The meeting was broken up, and the president was informed of this by Chief of Staff Card.

QUESTION: What time was that? Was it before or after stories broke in the press?

FLEISCHER: The president went into the meeting in the security council in the Situation Room. I believe that meeting began at approximately -- I'd want to check, I'm working off the schedule, so I don't know if this is actually when it literally began, but...

QUESTION: (inaudible)

FLEISCHER: Well, because what you're going to find out is the meeting was scheduled to begin around 9:15. It broke up around 11. So the president was in the Situation Room for that entire period according to the schedule. And as the meeting broke up, Andy Card informed the president. QUESTION: But as you know, the -- let me ask when the president, although I appreciate (inaudible) I didn't ask when the president (inaudible) The story broke around 10:40. Did the White House know before 10:40 or at 10:40 that he was resigning?

FLEISCHER: I know when the president knew. When you say the White House, again, I don't know when different people here found out.

QUESTION: (inaudible) Andy Card, Nick Calio, any senior officials get a courtesy call, get a heads-up before it broke?

FLEISCHER: I asked Nick, and I know that Nick Calio spoke with Senator Lott's office as the news broke, just to call and to confirm that that was indeed the case. So Nick talked to the senator's office.

QUESTION: As far as you know, the White House did not get a heads-up?

FLEISCHER: I can't answer that question. I know from the president, but it's a big building, again. I don't know and cannot say everybody in the building who may have found out.

QUESTION: (inaudible) senior officials on questions like this before. You can say as far as you know, nobody was given a heads-up.

FLEISCHER: I do not know the answer to that. I know about the president. That's where I started my inquiry is when did the president find out.

QUESTION: When did Andy find out?

FLEISCHER: Andy found out as the meeting was broken up, when he was contacted by a member of his staff.

QUESTION: When did that member of his staff find out?

FLEISCHER: You're moving (inaudible) backwards. I don't know the answers to that.

QUESTION: You said that the president didn't think that Trent Lott had needed to resign.


QUESTION: But did he ever do anything to persuade him to stay? And why didn't he ever talk to him on this whole very tough, trying period?

FLEISCHER: Well, I think the president's position is well known on this. And the president expressed his thoughts about the statement that was made by Senator Lott in the president's remarks in Philadelphia. And then the president and Senator Lott spoke that afternoon, as you know. And Senator Lott informed the president that he agreed with what the president had said in Philadelphia. And as I've said many times, beyond that, the White House made very clear that the White House would not and did not take part or play any role in any decisions that are properly the prerogatives of the senator's to make.

QUESTION: Does that mean he will not express any view on who should be the majority leader now?

FLEISCHER: That is correct. The president will continue to -- and the White House will continue to play no role nor take a part in the decisions that are the business of the United States Senate.

QUESTION: Ari, does the president believe, because of this episode and other things, his visit to Bob Jones University, his administration's opposition to the kinds of affirmative action programs that most black voters support, that the Republican Party now has a problem with minority voters?

FLEISCHER: Well, I think the -- when you take a look at the numbers, it's clear that African-American voters vote in large numbers for Democrats and liberal candidates far more than they do for Republican or conservative candidates.

FLEISCHER: I think that's a well-accepted statement of fact.

The president is a man who believes deeply in outreach. The president, of course, would like to have his message of compassionate conservatism be agreed to by 100 percent of Americans everywhere. Obviously, that's never going to be the case, for any politician, of either stripe, reaching across partisan lines.

But the president will continue his efforts at outreach and caring, and it's important. And whether that's manifest in an increase in vote or not, the president will continue to do it because he believes in it and thinks it's the right thing for the country, whether or not votes are changed as a result of that.

He will continue, just as he did in Texas with great success. I remember the president, as a first-term governor going to a second- term governor, in the first term, the president did not enjoy a lot of support in the minority vote when he first ran. Of course, when he ran for re-election the percentages, as people got to know President Bush and saw his policies, increased multiple-fold.

QUESTION: Does the president regret at all going to Bob Jones University and not saying any word of criticism about their then policy of forbidding interracial dating?

FLEISCHER: Yes, I would refer you to the statement the president made very publicly in Austin on this topic back in early 2000 when this came up.

QUESTION: Not at Bob Jones University, though, he didn't make that statement.

FLEISCHER: No, he made a statement shortly thereafter in Austin regarding that visit, and you have that.

QUESTION: So what should black and white voters who are now focused on the issue of race and the Republican Party and this president draw from Mr. Bush's visit to Bob Jones University and his silence while there on that very offensive policy banning interracial dating?

FLEISCHER: Well, let me describe to you what the president has done about civil rights in America and the president's position on some of these issues. And when you take a look at some of the things that help people of all walks of life in America -- the president's programs on education, for example, are some of the best ways to help Americans from all walks of life to have a better future.

The president's program for tax relief to help the economy growing again took the economy from a recession to growth, and, of course, people from all walks of life benefit from an economy that is growing.

When it comes to the civil rights laws of our country, this president has moved forward to vigorously enforce the civil rights laws of our nation and has, through the Justice Department, led to the some of the most notable settlements that we have had in vexing difficult civil rights issues that have plagued our country in some cases for decades.

And I'd cite the dispute over desegregation in Yonkers, which has been successfully resolved by this administration. After the riots broke out in Cincinnati last year it was this administration that went into Cincinnati and worked extraordinarily closely with the community, with blacks and whites, with the police, in bringing racial healing to a city that had been split as a result of the riots there.

On housing and public accommodation cases, through Secretary Martinez at the Department of Housing and Urban Development, there has been a large number of settlement cases that have been made as well.

And I remind you, of course, when the president went to Philadelphia two weeks ago, he went there to promote his faith-based initiative. And I think, as those of you who were there, you saw the reaction from an overwhelmingly African-American group to the president's initiatives because they believe in those policies that the president is focused on.

QUESTION: If the president felt so strongly about this, Ari, why didn't he want Trent Lott to resign?

FLEISCHER: Because, as the president has said and as I've said on his behalf many a time, that the president disagreed very strongly with the statement that Senate Lott made and said so; he also said that Senator Lott apologized and rightly so.

QUESTION: Ari, two questions. First, one just brief comment. I just want to bring to the president's attention that now we are about to enter the new year, Christmas is coming, really I've very thankful to you, Scott and the rest of the press office for the great job and support they have given us.

QUESTION: And the question is that if I ask the president how would he review the globe today, and including U.S. and the Arab relations?

FLEISCHER: Well, the president believes the United States-India relations are good, they are strong. There have been a series of visits, as you know, from high-level administration officials to India. The situation between India and Pakistan has been one that has been marked by great tension. There have been moments in this administration where the tension reached alarming levels, and as a result of the intervention of the president, the secretary of state, and numerous leaders around the world, including President Putin and Prime Minister Blair, there is now a markedly diminished point of tension.

The president has met with the prime minister of India on several occasions, and he looks forward to continuing to work on improving U.S.-Indian relations.

PHILLIPS: White House Press Secretary Ari Fleischer addressing reporters there at the White House.


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