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CNN LIVE EVENT/SPECIAL

White House Press Briefing

Aired April 15, 2003 - 14:30   ET

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

KYRA PHILLIPS, CNN ANCHOR: We're now going to take you to the White House briefing. Press Secretary Ari Fleischer, addressing reporters, stepping up to the podium. Let's listen in, see what he has to say today.
ARI FLEISCHER, WHITE HOUSE PRESS SECRETARY: Good afternoon.

Let me fill you in on the president's day. And I have two announcements.

The president began with an intelligence briefing, followed by a FBI briefing. Then he convened a meeting of the National Security Council. He also met with the secretary of defense today. He made remarks in the Rose Garden today about the importance of Congress passing his jobs and growth tax plan. He also today met with the secretary of state. And the later today the president will sign a proclamation dealing with the commemoration of the 35th anniversary of the Fair Housing Act.

Today, of course, is April 15, tax day, the day on which all Americans are accountable to pay their taxes. The nation needs somebody accountable at the IRS to run the IRS. This administration nominated Mark Everson to be the commissioner of the IRS on January 22. Despite the fact that he's been unanimously confirmed by the committee in the Senate, the full Senate has not yet taken up the confirmation of Mark Everson, despite the fact he had twice previously been confirmed unanimously by the Senate for other positions.

President Bush is committed to bringing better service to the taxpayer and to strengthening enforcement efforts against those who seek to circumvent our tax laws. The IRS needs to be an important part of the corporate accountability effort to restore confidence in American business. This requires a commissioner in place to direct the activities of this agency.

The president calls on the Senate to act to confirm Mark Everson as commissioner of the Internal Revenue Service. It doesn't serve the taxpayers for members of the Senate to use the IRS commissionership for political horse trading. And the president urges the Senate to take that action.

One other note for you, on a new feature that the White House will be offering that I wanted to bring to your attention. This is part of the White House web page, whitehouse.gov. "Ask the White House," a live online discussion between White House officials and visitors to the White House, web page will debut tomorrow night at 7 p.m. Eastern Time. The interactive forum will allow for a 30-minute question-and-answer period between any citizen who wants to log on or anybody from around the world who wants to log on to discuss issues with a guest from the White House. The White House Chief of Staff Andrew Card will host the inaugural event tomorrow. And that's again, www.whitehouse.gov.

The final item I have for you is the president also today spoke with President Chirac of France. The two had a wide-ranging phone call. The president talked about Iraq, and his confidence that conditions in Iraq will be better than they were before the war as a result of our efforts there.

The two also discussed the situation in Syria, and they agreed that Syria should not harbor Iraqi leaders.

They also discussed the situation in the Middle East and the road map for peace. The president said that the hoped to be able to release the road map soon.

They also discussed the upcoming meeting in the G-8 that is to be held in France.

QUESTION: The president is planning to go?

FLEISCHER: Yes, the president is planning to go.

QUESTION: Who initiated the call?

FLEISCHER: President Chirac did.

QUESTION: How long?

FLEISCHER: Twenty minutes.

QUESTION: Would you call it a positive conversation?

FLEISCHER: From the president's point of view, he would call it a business-like conversation.

QUESTION: Ari, does this change anything in terms of what the president envisions other countries doing for postwar Iraq? In the past, we haven't invited France or Germany or Russia to these talks. But now was the conversation today with Chirac, does this change...

FLEISCHER: I'm sorry, which talks have we not invited people to?

QUESTION: Some of the ones going on now in Iraq.

FLEISCHER: You mean with the Kurds, the Sunnis and the Shiites?

QUESTION: Yes. We've invited our coalition partners, but not the objectors, the ones who objected to the war.

FLEISCHER: Well, of course, the coalition that is on the ground, is on the ground and, therefore, in a position to engage in these talks.

QUESTION: My broader question, though, is this. Does this conversation between President Bush and President Chirac suggest a thought in the rift in the alliance?

FLEISCHER: Well, let me put it to you this way. The French have said this, so I feel comfortable in quoting President Chirac's words. President Chirac told President Bush that he wanted to play a, quote/unquote, "pragmatic role in reconstruction events in Iraq." So I leave it at that. That was President Chirac's statement.

QUESTION: Did they discuss the U.N. role to any extent?

FLEISCHER: I do not recall that they discussed the U.N. role. As you know, the president has said the U.N. will have a vital role.

QUESTION: Is the United States planning on warning all the countries that have weapons of mass destruction or only Syria?

FLEISCHER: The United States has always said that we hope nations around the world will comply with treaty obligations and will rid themselves of weapons of mass destruction. We have consistently that particularly in the region in the Middle East.

(CROSSTALK)

FLEISCHER: Well, the focus in Syria is because Syria is the nation that's harboring Iraqis.

QUESTION: You have proof of that?

FLEISCHER: Well, certainly we would not have said it, Secretary Powell would not have said it, the president wouldn't have said it.

QUESTION: (OFF-MIKE)?

FLEISCHER: Well, as always, this is an old argument. We have information that comes into our hands through a variety of means. We prefer to keep getting that information, and we feel confident enough...

QUESTION: (OFF-MIKE)?

FLEISCHER: I think our credibility is rather strong.

QUESTION: Do the president's speeches on taxes and the economy today and tomorrow suggest that he feels it's time to shift his gaze a little bit in hopes of avoiding what might have happened to his father in 1991?

FLEISCHER: Well, let me remind you that while there is no question that for the last month or so the focus has been very strongly on events in Iraq, given the fact that we have been in the middle of a war.

Even during this time, the president had a series of meetings on the economy, you were there, you've talked to many of the people who participated in the meeting that the president had with his National Economic Council, with other leaders, who came to the White House -- business leaders, etcetera.

But go back to the beginning of the year and how the president began the year, which was on January 7, when the president traveled to Chicago to announce his economic growth package.

Ever since January 7 this president has been steady and strong in working to enact the growth package, and he will continue to do that with the United States Congress.

We've had various levels of success with the Congress on it, the president will continue to help to persuade the Congress to pass a jobs growth program.

So this is a continuation of something that the president began very strongly at the beginning of the year -- had, oh, some dozen, 15 meetings already so far this year focused exclusively on the growth package.

Clearly, there was a period of time where the war was the number one issue that all, was all that people could at least visibly see. But even at that time, I think you're familiar, the president had leaders of the Congress down at the White House, the chairman of the Ways and Means Committee, the chairman of Finance Committee, congressional leadership met with him, and he made numerous phone calls throughout this period of time, as well.

But it is, no question, it is important.

QUESTION: Is he using the capital generated by the successful prosecution of the war to advance his case here?

FLEISCHER: Well, listen, I think no matter what the outcome of war the president would be doing this. And so those will be judgments that other people will make about whether the president has capital, how much capital does he have, what influence it has on members of Congress. I think this is the beginning of a story. We're not even at the middle of that story yet.

And the Congress is now on a two-week recess. When they return, they will begin their process of working diligently on the tax bill itself, which is really what this becomes a key issue about.

And I think you'll see continued activities or maybe even increased activities by the president as this moves along.

QUESTION: The president called today for $500 -- at least $550 billion in tax relief, that's down from $760 billion, but...

FLEISCHER: $726.

QUESTION: ...$726, thank you. Still a lot of money.

Now that basically military operations, combat operations -- excuse me -- have ceased in Iraq, and we have a sense of the scale of the destruction and reconstruction that will be necessary. Can the White House -- can the president tell the American people how much more money beyond the supplemental will be required for the American taxpayer to pay in Iraq or is the president asking the Congress and the American people to support this half a trillion dollar tax cut flying fiscally blind?

FLEISCHER: No, he's not asking flying fiscally blind. He's asking Congress to pass it, flying fiscally responsibly knowing that the economy and growth in the economy is in good part depending on what we do with the tax cut, because it could give a boost to the economy, create more jobs. That's what the president has proposed. That's what he's focused on.

As for the budget, number one, I think it still is too early to make any real assessments on the ground about all reconstruction costs. But given the way the timing works with the congressional cycle, there is sufficient time for Congress as they now have the orderly hearings and appropriation bills for the fiscal year that won't begin until October of 2003 to take into consideration for the '04 budget if there are any additional costs that need to be incurred.

QUESTION: I'm just trying to fit the pieces together. You have at least a half a trillion dollar tax cut, and you're saying we have an unknown multibillion dollar commitment that we are going to make Iraq, and the White House, the president can't tell the Congress and the American people how much that piece is going to be before fitting in the half trillion (OFF-MIKE).

FLEISCHER: It's an interesting notion that because we don't know what all the costs are of Iraq, business here in the United States for the American people should no loner go on. By that logic it would suggest we have an unknown in Iraq, so therefore we should not proceed on any domestic issues, we should not proceed on funding schools, getting an economy for the...

(CROSSTALK)

FLEISCHER: Well, if you're calling it not responsible, I think that's subjective. The fact of the matter is, as the president today in the Rose Garden, what's important is not to have a focus on an arbitrary number, but to focus on the fact that the American people needs jobs because the economy is growing slower than he otherwise would like, and therefore we need to give a boost, an impetus to the economy. That's the definition of responsibility is to worry about the needs of the American people first.

QUESTION: You said that the conversation with President Chirac was business-like. Is the president still annoyed that the French role in the U.N. debate, is he willing to let by-gones be by-gones?

FLEISCHER: Well, certainly, listen -- the president has not been shy about saying that we have common values with France that are always going to guide us allies. He's also not shy at saying that we disagree and disagree strenuously on whether force was the appropriate way to handle the issue about how to get Iraq to disarm and to change the regime.

We have differences. We still have some of those differences. But that won't stop the president from working in a businesslike and professional way with an ally like France.

QUESTION: And when President Chirac says that he's looking for a pragmatic approach, how do you interpret that?

FLEISCHER: Well, it was an interesting choice of words. I don't know exactly, literally, what to make of it. I think that's something that France can explain. I think that they may be seeking to find what role they may be able to play.

QUESTION: What role would you like them to play?

What ideas does this administration have in terms of bringing them in? Would it only be in the context of the United Nations or are there...

(CROSSTALK)

FLEISCHER: The president thanked President Chirac for his statement today, for example, about Syria. The president thought it was very helpful to hear President Chirac agree that Syria should take no action to harbor any Iraqis who to seek to cross the border. And that's a message that President Chirac has conveyed, and the president was grateful for that.

Inside Iraq, I think that the efforts are under way right now, as you know, with the coalition and the meeting that took place in the city of Ur today, the first of what will be many meetings.

But when it comes down to the future of Iraq, what the president always keeps foremost in his mind is that the future will be decided by the Iraqi people. He welcomes help from wherever help is appropriate, but the future will be decided by the people of Iraq.

QUESTION: Can I just follow up on the road map? You said they talked about hoping to release the road map soon.

FLEISCHER: Correct.

QUESTION: Putting together the cabinet under the new prime minister is not going well. There appears to be a bit of a stalemate between Arafat and Abu Mazen. Is this holding up the process? Is the U.S. doing anything to intervene, to try to help them negotiate?

FLEISCHER: Well, this is an important matter for the Palestinians to settle on. I think it will be a very important early indicator about how strong the chance is for a reformed Palestinian leadership, how successful Yasser Arafat will be in trying to cling to old ways that were ways that did not lead to peace or success. So I think it's a story that is still being written.

But the president has high hopes, let me put it that way, that the Palestinian reformers will prevail. QUESTION: Do you think that's what Arafat's trying to do now, hold on to the old ways?

FLEISCHER: Well, certainly Yasser Arafat's ways did not lead to peace, they led to more violence. And that's why the president gave the speech he gave on June 24, making crystal clear that the path forward to peace in the Middle East did not go through Yasser Arafat, Yasser Arafat was a blockade to prospects for peace.

QUESTION: Ari, questions of two ends of the axis of evil. First, on Syria. From this podium you told us a few months ago that Syria was being very cooperative in the battle with terrorism. Is it the White House view that Syria is still being cooperative in the battle against terrorism?

FLEISCHER: You know, I don't have any new updates on it. Syria did indeed take some actions that were helpful in the wake of 9/11. But when you look at what Syria is doing today, that's why, vis-a-vis Iraq, the president, the secretary of defense and the secretary of state have all spoken out as they have.

QUESTION: And second, can you just update us on where things are with North Korea?

FLEISCHER: North Korea, of course, made some interesting comments last week in regard to multilateral discussions, which would be something they would be open to. We noted those reports with interest.

We are, as the president said, making good progress working in a multilateral fashion with our friends and allies. We believe this is a regional issue, a bilateral issue, and we will continue to treat it as such.

We are, in the wake of the North Korean statement, consulting with our friends and allies in the region. And we will follow-through through appropriate diplomatic channels.

QUESTION: But no announcements, plans...

FLEISCHER: No, we're following through through the appropriate diplomatic channels.

QUESTION: Ari, was the president essentially saying this morning that the war in Iraq is over? And do you ever expect him to actually come out and use words to that effect?

FLEISCHER: No, it could -- the president knows what you all have heard, that there are still pockets of resistance, there's still some flashpoints that are sources of concern. The president was expressing, frankly, his great delight and satisfaction about the manner in which the war has been waged and the outcome of it, an outcome that he said was never in doubt.

No, I think that if it gets to the point where he received the good word, the good final word from his advisers in the field that the war is over, the war is done in its entirety and completion, he'll have more to say.

QUESTION: Do you have a sense of when, if ever, the uncertainty will end or is it possible that this could morph into the large war on terrorism, other conflicts in the Mideast...

FLEISCHER: No, I think, given the fact that the military conflict with Iraq was more along the lines of a traditional war, not the war on terrorism which is a war without borders, a war that doesn't have nations. It's a very different type of conflict. The war with Iraq was a much more conventional, more easily recognized conflict. I think that there will be some point down the road where the president does receive more definitive word from his military aides.

QUESTION: Ari, on the tax cut, you were talking about political capital. Senator Breaux, who, as you know, is very important to getting anything passed on this issue in the Senate, made clear today in talking to reporters, that he doesn't believe that the capital extends that far, that this is just not going to happen beyond $350. Senator Snowe, also in talking to her, people didn't seem to be very moved by the idea of getting more than $350 trillion?

QUESTION: How are you going to move more than $550 when you've got people in your own party who don't want more than $350?

FLEISCHER: Well, I think it's fair to say that there is a good fight ahead when it comes to how to provide growth for the economy, and the president's going to engage in it.

The president believes very strongly that we need, as a government, to concern ourselves with the needs of the unemployed, people who are looking for work, with Americans who want the economy to grow and grow faster than it is.

And he's on their side. And that's what he will continue to do as he pushes for a tax relief package of sufficient size so that the economy can get a boost and get a stimulus that creates jobs.

And make no mistake about it, while there are some who say that the size of the tax cut should be diminished, they claim so that the deficit can be reduced, they have every intention of using that money to increase government spending.

And all you need to do is look at the amendments that were offered in the debate in the Senate about the budget resolution. It was one amendment after another amendment after another amendment about how to reach into the taxpayer wallets and spend more of their money.

It wasn't how to save the size of the tax cut. So that, too, guides the president. It is a false debate to say that if the taxes aren't cut the money will be saved.

We all know how it works in Washington. That money will be spent on more government programs. QUESTION: Just to follow up on that, two Republican senators, Voinovich and Snowe, the reason for not supporting, they say, this larger tax cut is expressly for the deficit, because of the deficit.

You're saying that they will, in turn, take the money and spend it?

FLEISCHER: No, I'm referring to many of the amendments that were offered in the budget resolution process. And many of those amendments when you look at them were offered by the loyal opposition, and they dealt with all kinds of, scores of amendments on spending increases for many different causes. And the pressure's always on in the Congress to spend more, not to save it. And so that's something else that guides the president.

QUESTION: Aside from controlling the territory of Iraq, I believe last week administration officials said that the president's main objectives in prosecuting the war were finding, capturing or killing Saddam Hussein, destroying his weapons of mass destruction and accounting for U.S. prisoners of war.

Is that a comprehensive list of the objectives the president set out...

FLEISCHER: I think the president's objectives were the disarmament of Iraq and regime change. Those are the two most broad messages that the president cited as our mission.

And it's the president himself has said that he will await the word from his military commanders, principally General Franks, General Myers, Secretary Rumsfeld, about when in their military estimation the military conflict can, indeed, be called over.

QUESTION: So regime change having been pretty much accomplished we're looking at disarmament now?

FLEISCHER: Well, I think we're also looking for the sign from the military planners that the military phase is over. There'll be other phases where there still is military on the ground.

But if you're looking for what's the president waiting for, that's what he's waiting for.

QUESTION: Ari, A couple of questions on taxes.

QUESTION: The president said, and you have said, that you want a package that's at least $550.

FLEISCHER: Correct.

QUESTION: What strategies does the White House think would work to get above $550?

FLEISCHER: Well, I appreciate the opportunity to reveal our strategy in public. But... QUESTION: Well you don't have to tell me. What are your options? You don't have to tell me which one you'll choose, but what do you think are your legislative options out there to get...

(CROSSTALK)

FLEISCHER: Well, keep in mind the House of Representatives passed a tax cut of $726 billion. So right away you start with the equal body, saying the tax cut should be far higher than what the Senate has indicated that it would support -- that a small majority of senators have said that it would support. There is almost as equal majority just under a majority in the Senate who supports a tax cut as closer to the House number.

And so there's lot of room here for different conversations with different senators. And there's also room to talk to the country, about whether or not the American people believe that the child credit should be accelerated to $1,000. And the American people, whether families want marriage penalty relief -- whether families want child tax credit relief.

So there's a variety of people to be talked to, and, again, I urged you to keep in mind here when you look at the Congress, it's not uncommon for strong positions to be staked at the beginning of debate by members of Congress, and then the debate unfolds. And then communication is enhanced directly with the country, directly in conversations. And we'll see what the ultimate outcome of that is.

QUESTION: But, what do you see as your options? (inaudible) could there be two separate tax packages, that that would be one way to carry the number higher? Would there be floor amendments? How do you...

FLEISCHER: From a legislative point of view, there are any different number of ways to accomplish it. QUESTION: Like what?

FLEISCHER: (UNINTELLIGIBLE) do you want me to start doing that in public?

QUESTION: Yes.

FLEISCHER: You said you didn't want me to, now you say you do.

QUESTION: Well, I prefer that you do. If you choose not to, that's all right. But what about your broad options?

FLEISCHER: I think that's what we're going to work with members of Congress about. Keep in mind that there is one body already that is on record of supporting a way to have additional tax relief to help give a boost to the economy and also to make certain that the child credit does indeed get doubled to $1,000 -- that the marriage penalty is indeed reduced, and things of that nature. So we'll be continuing to work with those who support it. And, as I indicated, the numbers in the Senate are close.

QUESTION: (OFF-MIKE) in conference? FLEISCHER: Yes.

QUESTION: Does the fact that several Shia leaders did not attend the meeting in Ur today raise any concerns about the viability of (inaudible)?

FLEISCHER: No. I think what you're going to see -- number one, this is the first of many meetings to come, preliminary meetings, in the formulation of a future interim government. There are many Shia leaders who did attend. And so you're seeing people who have different opinions in Iraq. And today should be always remembered as a day where Iraqis expressed different opinions and weren't shot for it. They are able to speak about it.

QUESTION: (OFF-MIKE) did not attend, why didn't they attend?

FLEISCHER: Again, I cannot give you the reasons; I'm not their spokesman.

QUESTION: Unrelated question. Did the White House encourage Senator Fitzgerald to take himself out of the Illinois Senate race.

FLEISCHER: I have no additional information beyond the announcement.

QUESTION: Ari, last week from this podium, you made some pretty unequivocal statements about this belief that there were weapons of mass destruction in Iraq. A week later, we still haven't got any definitive proof that we've found some.

QUESTION: Are you beginning to become concerned about those statements?

FLEISCHER: No. Absolutely no. In fact, if you saw General Brooks' briefing this morning, I think his word was "unwavering" in our confidence that Iraq has weapons of mass destruction. They will be found. And then he did actually a very detailed walk-through of the process operationally that DOD is using in the pursuit of them.

QUESTION: Do you expect any announcements (OFF-MIKE)?

FLEISCHER: I think that when we have something to report, it'll duly get reported, of course.

QUESTION: Ari, a few questions on the road map. Is the U.S. giving serious consideration to Israel point of view in their request for some revisions in the road map?

FLEISCHER: Yes.

There was a meeting yesterday in which Secretary Powell, Dr. Rice and other U.S. officials met with an Israeli delegation and received preliminary comments from Israel about the road map. The president has always said that we would welcome contributions from Israel and the Palestinian Authority. In addition, when the road map is formally presented we anticipate receiving contributions and comments at that time, and they will of course get serious consideration.

QUESTION: On the settlements...

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

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