FLEISCHER: We are ready to take questions.
QUESTION: I'm wondering if president-elect has spoken with Linda Chavez since the news of the Mercado relationship broke out.
FLEISCHER: Nothing has been brought to my attention on that.
QUESTION: I'd like to know if you can talk about the Wall Street Journal story today saying that Linda Chavez may have spoken to a neighbor before the nomination, discussing the Mercado relationship?
FLEISCHER: Yes, I have noted the story and, as I mentioned yesterday, part of the ongoing vetting process is to look at a whole series of events and how information was developed and, as I indicated, that process is ongoing and that is one of the items that has been noted.
QUESTION: Can I ask a follow-up, at least a first follow-up? Do you yet have a firm idea and are convinced in your mind when Linda Chavez knew--not suspected, but knew--that Mercado was in the U.S. illegally?
FLEISCHER: That's the point of the vetting process. That's why we are seeking to develop information, and once we have something to share, we will endeavor to do so.
QUESTION: And maybe my last follow-up: In retrospect, do you think it would have been wise for Linda Chavez to bring this whole issue up when she was interviewed to begin with?
FLEISCHER: I'm not doing retros right now. We'll just, in as comprehensive a fashion as possible, gather all the information from the vetting process and take is as the information develops.
QUESTION: Thanks, Ari.
QUESTION: Hi Ari, I wanted to--maybe Dan--well, what's open and what's closed on Wednesday? And when there will be a list of the participants for the Thursday education event?
FLEISCHER: As far as open-closed, we're going to have the arrival, there will be photo op at the Pentagon. And I think we're photo oping the tank. The departure will be photo op. And I'm not sure yet if there's going to be, you know, any type of a veil there or, we're still trying to work through that detail.
The education meeting, I anticipate having that list out, perhaps, today, no later than tomorrow. The meeting is Thursday morning, of course. So I'm just trying to get that in final form.
And the times for all these meetings, as Dan indicated, as soon as we just have every, you know, having it all nailed down, it'll be in writing, and we'll get it to everybody as soon as it's done.
QUESTION: Do you know where the meeting is--the education event is Thursday?
FLEISCHER: No, the venue is not final.
QUESTION: OK, thank you.
QUESTION: Would it be appropriate for a nominee for a Cabinet level position to be contacting neighbors to discuss circumstances, such as we had with the Mercado case, yes or no?
FLEISCHER: Well, I think in this whole matter there were circumstances and facts are exactly what the vetting process is all about. And as that process develops, people are contacted and reached and the facts are developed, we'll have a fuller understanding of these events. So I leave that to the vetters.
QUESTION: Is the Bush transition concerned, as the FBI appears to be that there may have been some attempt here to influence information that Ms. Swisler would have given to the FBI regarding the background check on Ms. Chavez?
FLEISCHER: Again, I think that all depends on the facts. And there are obviously different takes on conversations. That's not a surprise to anybody. And memories of conversations are always subjective by all parties involved, which is why we have put in place a thorough and comprehensive vetting process. And as that process develops those facts, then we'll have something to say.
QUESTION: And what is your understanding of the contact between Ms. Chavez and Ms. Mercado on Saturday night? As I understand it, Ms. Mercado tried to initiate contact. Do you know who got to who first?
FLEISCHER: I really don't know much about that.
QUESTION: All right, thank you.
QUESTION: Want to ask you about an article in The Washington Post on the trade representative. Bill Thomas apparently is indicating that he's been assured by high-level officials in the transition that it will remain at Cabinet status. I wonder if you have anything for us on that?
FLEISCHER: We're very well aware of the issues that have been raised in this regard. And obviously no decisions have been made about the USTR.
We are in the process of talking to various people about USTR, and it will all be made clear and public in short order, including what that person's Cabinet rank will be.
QUESTION: So his spokesman is incorrect when he says that he has been assured--that they have been assured that it will be a Cabinet position?
FLEISCHER: We are very well aware of the importance of this position and the importance of rank, and it will all be made plain for all to see at the time when the person is named.
QUESTION: And just lastly, can we expect that this week?
FLEISCHER: You know, I just can't speculate about the exact times of announcements, that type of thing. As you know, that's our standard procedure. But it's an important position. It's a position that will have to fight throughout the world for the president-elect's free trade positions. And the president-elect has every intention on moving on that position to afford it the priority it deserves.
QUESTION: OK, thanks a lot.
QUESTION: Hello, Ari. From what you know now--I'm going to take you back to the prior subject. From what you know now, do you think that Ms. Chavez has been forthcoming?
And also, I'm wondering where the Republican senators are here, why none of them are standing with the president-elect in support of her?
FLEISCHER: I'm going to try to interject that the previous subject was the USTR. You've got me all hyped up.
Let me try to answer the process question here, which I think is on everybody's mind. It's a very legitimate question.
I told everybody yesterday that people have their meeting with the clearing counsel. And then everybody fills out information. The FBI always does the background check, the field investigations. The Senate conducts its own.
The president-elect's approach to this and to all nominees is that when questions are raised, we will conduct as full and comprehensive a review of all the facts as is possible. And until we are able to complete that process, we're going to be reticent to comment, and I think that's in fairness to the nominee, it's in respect to the Senate, and it's the wisest approach to make certain that our process is a good one and a solid one to ensure that we have the best nominees to serve the country.
What that unfortunately means is during the interim period between when these additional questions are raised and a comprehensive review is complete, we're not going to be able to further it substantially, and I'll do my best to help everybody and then to give you as much as I can of what you need.
But that is the president-elect's approach. I think people who worked with us during the campaign and the Florida recount, I think you saw us be somewhat reticent to get in front until we have developed as full and comprehensive set of facts as is possible.
Obviously, the political community is also interested in the development of that set of facts, and once we have it, we'll be able to move forward from there.
QUESTION: But aren't you surprised that no Republican senators have come forward yet in support?
FLEISCHER: Well, I think, again, questions have been raised and everybody wants to know what the full facts are. But I'm not sure I would agree with your premise. I haven't done a laundry list myself, but I'm not sure I would agree with that premise.
QUESTION: I'm willing to be proven wrong but I haven't seen anybody by name yet.
FLEISCHER: I just don't know if you've made a call to each and every office, so...
QUESTION: Good morning, Ari. I'm a little hesitant to ask this because of the source, but I need to it. There is a story making its way around the Internet of an alleged banquet the governor attended with more than 1,000 campaign volunteers to thank them. And the point of the story that's being circulated is that at this event Governor Bush took about a half hour out as he was greeting people to speak about religion with one 16-year-old at the event. Was there ever such an event?
FLEISCHER: First, I've ever heard of this Internet--where, on the Internet, is this story from?
QUESTION: E-mailed--well, it's e-mailed all over the place. It's attributed to a man named Dennis Lake (ph) of the Coalition of Churches Prison Ministry at Preston Wood Baptist (ph) in Plano, who tells the story of a man who has a friend who served on the campaign in Austin, and tells the story of last week Bush appeared at a thank you banquet for his staff and was going table to table to shake hands with 1,000-plus volunteers. He got to one lady, who, by a brief comment she made, indicated she was a Christian. She was with her 16-year-old son. Governor Bush asked him if he was a believer. He said he didn't think so.
It goes on to say that Bush said: "Do you mind if I tell you how I came to know Christ as my Savior?" The boy agreed. Governor Bush pulled up a chair and witnessed to him for 30 minutes, led him in the sinner's prayer and there were tears shed. I don't recall ever an event like this happening.
Was there any kind of thank-you banquet for staffers?
FLEISCHER: Well, I wasn't invited.
QUESTION: There's a damn good reason for that.
SPOKESMAN DAN BARTLETT: You all know his movements better than Ari and I usually do, and I don't recall any banquet with 1,000 campaign workers or volunteers.
QUESTION: I got it, thanks.
QUESTION: Just wanted to ask if you could enlarge a little bit upon the budget meeting. What's that going to be about? And in particular, do you anticipate preparations for any kind of regulatory announcement on January--well, whatever the first Monday is of the administration?
FLEISCHER: On the budget meeting, it's a routine policy update. President-elect, throughout the course of the campaign, had a very similar approach where he would gather his top advisers on whatever the issue was, sit around a table, get a policy update, pepper them with questions, and that's how he leads.
On the regulatory announcements, we have not worked out the timetable, and we're still gathering--conducting the reviews of each and every one of the regulations. And what you can anticipate is, as our reviews of each of the last minute regulations, executive orders, are completed, decisions will be made by the president-elect. And I think that you can anticipate that's going to play itself out over a considerable period of time.
And he begins office January 20. I would not suggest to you that you're going to see any instant reactions to any of these executive orders or regulations. They'll all be considered in a very thorough fashion, and then as policy staff presents its findings to the president-elect, he'll make his decisions. And, again, that will play out over time.
QUESTION: OK, thank you.
QUESTION: Good morning. I have a quick scheduling question and a Chavez question. On the Pentagon meetings, is there any particular topic area for the briefing? Is this going to be like missile defense or personnel issues, or just kind of courtesy call and broad overview of the various service sectors?
FLEISCHER: It's going to be part courtesy call and a lot of real business. There's a lot of vital military information that is privileged to only the president of the United States, and that will be one of the purposes of the meeting.
QUESTION: So like a world overview of what's going on with the military as opposed to any...
FLEISCHER: Let me try to at 1:00 give you a little more specifics on it. Let me take that question and try to address it 1:00 with a little more specificity, beyond what I just said.
QUESTION: And on Chavez, is it correct that you all were told that she was not aware that the woman was in the country illegally until after she left Chavez's home? And if so, is that the case? I mean, do you believe that is the case and do you stand by that?
FLEISCHER: Yes. Let me address one part of that especially. If you read the front page of a couple of the nation's newspapers this morning, you'll see diametrically opposed information...
QUESTION: Exactly, that's why I bring it up.
FLEISCHER: ... to Tucker Eskew. And I just have to duly report that the version that says that she did not tell us that the person was illegal is erroneous.
The other version that says that she did acknowledge that the person was illegal is just a question of what timeframe that information came to her attention is in question. That report is correct.
QUESTION: And what is the timeframe that is correct, after the woman left her house?
FLEISCHER: Tucker is incomplete.
QUESTION: I'm sorry?
FLEISCHER: The other quote of Tucker in the version that says she did not know that...
FLEISCHER: ... incomplete quote, attributed to Tucker.
QUESTION: But the timeframe is that she did not know until after the woman left her house?
FLEISCHER: The timeframe of when she knew that Ms. Mercado was illegal is being reviewed.
QUESTION: But did she tell you at some point that it was after the woman left her house? That's what I'm getting at.
FLEISCHER: That's all being reviewed.
QUESTION: So you now have some doubt about her assurance or her statement that she didn't know until after the woman left her house?
FLEISCHER: We have received understandings that were given to Tucker, and we're just thoroughly reviewing it all.
The timeframe is just not clear of exactly when that information came to her attention.
QUESTION: Yes, Ari, I was wondering if you had a timetable for the hearings for John Ashcroft?
FLEISCHER: Let me see if I've got Ashcroft. He was not on my list for yesterday when he had a hearing. And my list is when the announcements are made by the Senate. The Senate has to announce it first before I can confirm it, of course. It's a Senate hearing. But my information yesterday did not include the Ashcroft hearing. and I have not gotten the updates this morning.
QUESTION: All right. Thank you.
QUESTION: I wonder, you said the vetting process continues. Have you learned anything new in the last 24 hours either from your own reviews or from news media accounts that you can report to us that changed the picture in any way?
FLEISCHER: Yes, Scott, that's why I was trying to, you know, help everybody and just let you know what are process is. That's why I was referring to you how we've done our business during the campaign, the Florida recount and this as well. And that is we gather the information, along with the vetters, in as comprehensive and as thorough process as is possible.
We will await to have that process complete before we indicate to you what it is, if anything new, that we've learned. So once we have that complete, I'll have something to share. But until then, I'm going to be reticent to go further.
QUESTION: Can you tell me what the vetting process or the investigation or the review, or the exploration involves right now? Is it FBI agents, other investigators? What exactly is the process?
FLEISCHER: Well, it's the FBI full field investigation which is done for each nominee. As information is brought to the FBI's attention, they go out and they check it out. And so, they ask additional questions, they ask follow-ups, and conduct additional interviews. That's the process.
QUESTION: So the FBI review is what you're awaiting?
FLEISCHER: That's correct. Those are the vetters of Cabinet nominees. Those are the ones who conduct the full field investigation.
QUESTION: Thanks very much.
FLEISCHER: Thanks everybody, we'll see you at 1:00