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CNN LIVE EVENT/SPECIAL

White House Press Briefing

Aired March 11, 2003 - 12:38   ET

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

WOLF BLITZER, CNN ANCHOR: I want to go over to the White House. The press secretary, Ari Fleischer, just walked in. He's beginning to make some statements, and then he will answer questions.
(JOINED IN PROGRESS)

ARI FLEISCHER, WHITE HOUSE PRESS SECRETARY: ... other leaders in many phone calls that you will get this afternoon.

The president has not at this time made additional phone calls, so I will have a report for you later in the afternoon about the other phone calls the president is making, which will include other members of the Security Council and other nations as well.

With that, I'm happy to take your questions.

QUESTION: Did the president today meet with Secretary Rumsfeld or Myers?

FLEISCHER: He did.

QUESTION: (OFF-MIKE) and Wolfowitz?

FLEISCHER: The president has had for a considerable amount of time weekly briefings with several members of the Cabinet where individuals in the Cabinet come in to talk to him about whatever is on their agenda. I have no report for you on the meeting. It was a private meeting. Presumably the topic of Iraq would have come up. But that's part of the meeting.

QUESTION: Who all was in the meeting besides the three I mentioned?

FLEISCHER: I don't have a complete list of who all was in the meeting.

QUESTION: And are you saying it's routine for those three officials to meet with the president...

FLEISCHER: The secretary of defense will come here on a periodic basis -- actually, a regular basis, about once a week -- to meet with the president, and the secretary often brings different people with him.

QUESTION: Could you substantiate the creditability of the president's statement that Iraq is capable of a direct and imminent attack on the United States? And I have a follow-up. FLEISCHER: The president does believe that Iraq is a direct threat to the United States as a result of Iraq having weapons of mass destruction, and particularly biological and chemical weapons.

QUESTION: Aimed at the U.S.?

FLEISCHER: Certainly, the fact that we have a presence in the region means American military men and women, American allies are targets. And even without a buildup, we have American forces in the region that could be targets of such attack.

QUESTION: They haven't done anything in 12 years. You mean our people, the 250,000 troops we've put there now?

FLEISCHER: And in addition to the troops that are there now, there are the American forces that were in place prior to the buildup. There are our friends and our allies who are there. And the question is, does Saddam Hussein, in violation of Resolution 1441, have weapons of mass destruction? The answer is yes.

QUESTION: My follow-up is, do you think there is any world leader who thinks that Iraq is going to attack the United States?

FLEISCHER: There are many world leaders who agree that Iraq must disarm, that Iraq is a threat not only to the United States, but to other nations in the neighborhood, and that's why...

QUESTION: The neighbors aren't even complaining. They're not even thinking of that.

FLEISCHER: Well, I think, as you noticed, they have been reporting about several of the neighbors supporting United States efforts rather strongly. And so, I think the facts are just the opposite of what you suggested.

QUESTION: On the diplomacy, several of the undecided nations have proposed, informally, a 45-day extension of the March 17 deadline. What's your read on that?

FLEISCHER: Well, the president thinks that there is a little room for a little more diplomacy, but not much time.

Any suggestion of 30 days, 45 days is a non-starter.

QUESTION: All right. So it's not 30 to 45 days, but there's a little more room.

FLEISCHER: It's not much time. It's not much time. And I would not say it's in between.

We are still in an important diplomatic phase in New York. The consultations with our allies are ongoing, and they are important. The resolution as amended is not set in stone. And the conversations are productive.

The president has encouraged this diplomacy to take place. But what the president has said is that there is room for a little more diplomacy, but not a lot of time to do it. The vote will take place this week.

QUESTION: And as part of that diplomacy, is the president willing to accept this notion of benchmarks, specific tests for Iraqi compliance being built into this resolution?

FLEISCHER: Well, I think it's fair to say the ultimate outcome of the diplomacy is unknown at this moment in terms of what the exact language will be of the amendment that is put forward for a vote. That's the topic of the diplomacy that's under way now.

QUESTION: And then, one more. The French president has now said: Whatever happens, France will vote no. What's the impact of that attitude and potentially that action on French-U.S. relations; and more broadly, on the prospect of this president or other presidents going back to the Security Council on a matter that could affect U.S. national security with France potentially playing this game?

FLEISCHER: When it comes to the disarmament of Saddam Hussein, it is too risky to have a laissez faire attitude about Iraq having weapons of mass destruction. This is a real problem because the resolutions at the United Nations call for immediate and full disarmament. If the U.N. does not enforce the resolution, the message to Iraq will be one of laissez faire, that it is OK to have the weapons you have because whatever happens there will be no veto. That's a problematic formulation.

QUESTION: Does it have long-term impacts on French-U.S. relations?

(CROSSTALK)

QUESTION: There is now a widespread perception that the only way you're going to get this is by getting nine votes, but getting vetoed. Is the U.S. intent on getting nine votes to prove that you could do it if only the French or Russia, Russians wouldn't veto it?

FLEISCHER: This remains an important matter for the United Nations Security Council and its 15 members to take the stand on whether resolutions at the U.N. are to have meaning. I do think it matters whether or not the other members of the Security Council support immediate disarmament. And they will have their opportunity to do so in the form of a vote.

So this remains an important test of the United Nations Security Council and a chance for these nations to show that while they serve as rotating members of the Security Council they stand for giving resolutions meaning and impact.

QUESTION: Do you really think that that gives you the same authority that a vote without a veto would?

FLEISCHER: Well, you know, the president has said that, one way or another, Saddam Hussein will be disarmed. His preference is to do it through the United Nations Security Council. This gives these nations an opportunity to say that despite a veto, the United Nations Security Council spoke.

QUESTION: Ari, while this is going on, the economy is in shambles. Does the president believe that this would be a short war and that investor confidence, say, in the markets will return in short order after conflict? Because otherwise, what is he prepared to do about the fact that his tax cut is stalled and getting little attention in Congress, and the fact that there's a looming deficit and tremendous potential liabilities for the U.S. to be engaged overseas in Iraq and other places after this conflict?

FLEISCHER: Despite the drama of the question, one, the economy is not in shambles.

(CROSSTALK)

QUESTION: ... a lot of Americans think that the economy is in pretty dramatic shape.

FLEISCHER: The economy is -- I think you've described it as in shambles. Of course the economy grew by just under 3 percent in 2002, which was increase from the recession of 2001. In fact the latest data show that while the economy remains growing slowly, that growth for the fourth quarter actually was twice the amount it was previously estimated to be.

The president is indeed very concerned, though, about the strength of the recovery and wants to make certain that the recovery continues.

The best way to approach this is through Congress taking action. And again, I don't think it's accurate to say that it is stalled. In fact, just this week the markups are scheduled to begin in the House and then into the Senate on the president's budget, as the House Budget Committee takes up and marks up its budget resolution. That is scheduled to happen just this very week. The Ways and Means Committee has already held hearings on it.

And so actually last year the Senate under different leadership failed to even pass a budget. Already this year Congress is moving smartly and on time to past budgets. So I think that progress is being made, and the president is encouraged by what he's seen.

QUESTION: So you're saying -- let's get you on the record on this -- that his vision for stimulus is the tax cut.

Do you think that that's really moving through Congress at a pace that will deliver the kind of stimulus to the economy that's necessary?

FLEISCHER: That's correct. Certainly, when you compare it to the past, there's no question about it, when you take a look at under the way Congress always moves, at the speed at which Congress moves. They have until April 15 to pass a budget resolution. They're moving already here in early March in the committee structure to pass a budget. That contrasts dramatically with last year in the Senate, a failure to even do the basic blocking and tackling of passing a budget or even passing the appropriation bills.

So there is a different situation in the Congress this year under new leadership. The agenda is moving forward.

In 2001, for example, the tax cut was passed and enacted into law at one of the earliest dates ever, which was Memorial Day 2001. That, of course, is some two months from now.

QUESTION: (OFF-MIKE) address the first point, which is, does the president expect that any conflict would be short and, therefore, there'd be a run-up in investor confidence afterwards? Is that what he's counting on?

FLEISCHER: The president has not made any predictions, in the event that he authorizes force, about what the length would be. Of course, plans are made and you hope for the best, you plan for the worst. But I have not heard the president make any prediction.

But there's no question the potential of war has created uncertainty in the market, it has frozen investments, and the president is cognizant of that. Any decision he makes will be made on the basis of national security, but there's no argument about that.

QUESTION: Ari, there are some reports that President Putin or the Russian foreign minister are going to come and see Bush. Do you have anything on that?

BLITZER: We're going to break away briefly from Ari Fleischer's question and answer session.

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