Press Briefing by Ari Fleischer
The James S. Brady Press Briefing Room
1:50 P.M. EST
MR. FLEISCHER: I have no prepared remarks to begin with, no opening, so I am pleased to take any questions you may have.
Q:Can I just start with the event we just had, for the heck of it? Is the cost figure for this proposal the same as unveiled in the campaign back in --
MR. FLEISCHER: Ron, I have no information to the contrary. What we're going to be doing is, as you know, when the budget comes out in February, we'll have the official OMB numbers in late February, we'll have the official OMB numbers for the cost of the education program, for the cost of several other programs that we've discussed. I think that's a good rough guide for you to use.
Q:We're there any changes at all from the proposal that he unveiled today from the campaign --
MR. FLEISCHER: Scott, are you aware of any?
MR. MCCLELLAN: No.
Q:On the retreat tomorrow, the retreats this week, can you give us an idea what the President hopes to accomplish, what signals you're trying to send?
MR. FLEISCHER: What the President seeks to accomplish at the retreats this week, both the Democrat and the Republican, is to work with members of Congress to get his agenda enacted into law. And I think you're going to hear the President give the same message to the Democrats that he does to the Republicans. He's going to say the same thing. And he will talk about the importance of improving education. He's going to talk about the importance of cutting taxes, of passing his faith-based initiative, rebuilding the military, Medicare reform, Social Security. That will be the agenda he lays out. It will be the same for one group as it is for the next.
Q:Let me follow one more time. What does he hope that Americans see out of this gesture of him going to meet with the Democrats?
MR. FLEISCHER: I think the President also hopes that by going to the retreats of the other parties as well, of course, of his own party, that people across the country will see our government works together well. That's one of the lessons of the election. He said that in the wake of a very close election he thought it was a signal to all the politicians that they needed to work together, that they needed to rise above the narrow margin and focus less on bickering and more on working.
And that's part of establishing a new tone in Washington. He's very gratified that he's been invited to the retreats of the Senate Democrats and the House Democrats. It's without modern precedent for a President of the opposite party to go. It may be without precedent entirely. We're trying to trace it back, but that's what we found so far.
Q:Senator Ashcroft is presumably about to be confirmed; the vote is ongoing right now. Obviously, good news for this White House. But is the President concerned that, given how controversial Ashcroft is and presumably will remain, that his choice as Attorney General undermines the President's attempts to build up all of this goodwill across party lines with African Americans and others?
MR. FLEISCHER: The President believes that the United States and all Americans, whether they voted for him or not, whether they support Senator Ashcroft at this moment or not, are going to come to see an Attorney General they can be proud of. And he thinks that in time people will recognize that we have a non-political Attorney General, an Attorney General who will enforce the law, an Attorney General who we will all be proud of.
Q:Do you not concede, does he not concede that this has come at the expense of a fair amount of political capital?
MR. FLEISCHER: I think he believes that he made the right decision in picking Senator Ashcroft to be Attorney General, and that as American people come to see the Attorney General who I just described, they will recognize he, again, made a wise governing decision, as he's done with the rest of his Cabinet and as he did with the selection of Secretary Cheney, at that time, to be Vice President.
Q:He said he's been a great listener so far. What's he hearing -- what message is he hearing from Democrats on this move?
MR. FLEISCHER: I talked to him a little bit about that this morning, and I think that he felt the impassioned plea of members of the Congressional Black Caucus last night to hear their voices and understand why there is such sensitivity to who we are going to have enforcing the laws, particularly civil rights laws and voting rights laws, at the Department of Justice. And I think that had an impact on him. I think he recognized how deep the passions run.
I can tell you, and I will say this, Congressman John Lewis made a very eloquent and powerful case for the importance of voting rights in this country. And that's something the President shares. And I think that was a very healthy conversation. And I think that that was time well spent, and I think that's something you're going to see come out of this Department of Justice. The healing process will continue, and I think it's going to only grow better over time.
Q:Will this battle over the Senator in any way tie President Bush's hands when it comes to making a Supreme Court nominee?
MR. FLEISCHER: I'm not going to speculate about Supreme Court nominees. There are no vacancies.
Q:Ari, a follow-up to Ashcroft. How is the healing process going to continue when you have one group seriously saying that this man has civil rights problems, and he's now the head of the Justice Department, if that does happen in a matter of minutes? How is the healing process going to begin?
MR. FLEISCHER: April, differences of opinion are nothing to new Washington. What we hope will be new to Washington is the manner in which those differences are settled and aired. And that is with civility, with respect for each other, with listening. I can't remember a President of either party inviting people over to the White House who have such a different view, for the simple reason he wanted to hear their point of view. And I think that's part of that process.
But there will be no 100 percent -- seldom are there 100 percent issues in Washington, D.C. But what can be done, what we can help to heal is the listening process. Let me remind everybody of one other thing -- and this is the way Congress has worked historically and still does -- on any given day, somebody will vote with you in the morning and vote against you in the afternoon. It's still all our jobs to work together.
Q:Ari, a follow-up to that. So African Americans should not take it as a slap in the face that after President Bush found out that there were some things that he didn't know, and he did not withdraw Ashcroft, that even though he's sitting as the head of the Justice Department, that everything is still fine and civil rights will still be a cornerstone of his administration?
MR. FLEISCHER: Let me address that question. I think there may have been some confusion last night and some misunderstanding about what the President said. The President did not make any such statement.
Q:He didn't? So you're saying Eddie Bernice is wrong?
MR. FLEISCHER: The President did not make any such statement. The President said that he was listening, that he heard the voices. That's what he said.
Q:Ari, there were members of the Black Caucus who didn't show up, that intentionally boycotted the meeting. How did the President feel about that?
MR. FLEISCHER: That was explained to him at the beginning of the meeting, and it was part of a preamble, an explanation at the beginning, and the President noted it.
Q:What are the chances we'll see or hear from the President after the confirmation?
MR. FLEISCHER: If there are any changes in the schedule, we'll advise you.
Q:You expect that he will come out?
MR. FLEISCHER: I just can't say.
Q:May I ask a foreign policy question? Thank you. It's been an old American policy that America is a European power also; it has become even a saying. Will the President uphold that policy?
MR. FLEISCHER: That we are a European power? I think what you will see in the President's conduct of foreign policy in Europe and around the world, that he wants to have a foreign policy that is marked by a humble -- humble foreign policy, a humble nation, that does not go around the world dictating to other nations what to do.
Q:But America is involved in Europe?
MR. FLEISCHER: Absolutely.
Q:Is Eastern Europe part of Europe?
MR. FLEISCHER: I don't do pop quizzes.
Q:Okay. There are three Eastern European prime ministers in town today and tomorrow. None of them will meet the President. Why?
MR. FLEISCHER: As you know, the President will be meeting with foreign leaders at the times we announce, and there will be a series of meetings as announced.
Q:Back on bipartisanship?
Q:Will Ashcroft be sworn in today, assuming this vote --
MR. FLEISCHER: I don't know the exact date of the swearing-in. Let's wait and see how the vote goes, what the vote is, of course. We're confident he will be confirmed, and as soon as we have something to set up as far as the swearing-in, we'll let you know.
Q:Now, in the past, he is -- this is a serious question -- he's had himself anointed with oil when he's been sworn in for previous posts. Has he discussed whether he will follow that practice in this post?
MR. FLEISCHER: Nothing that I'm aware of.
Q:Whose idea was it to invite the Kennedys over, and what does he have to do with it?
MR. FLEISCHER: It was the President's.
Q:His personal idea?
MR. FLEISCHER: Yes.
Q:And what does he want to get out of it?
MR. FLEISCHER: Well, it's because of the movie. I noticed people referring to this as the "hug a Democrat a day" administration. (Laughter.) I think if you recall, I reminded people the President also has friends who aren't Democrats. But it was the President's idea, and it really is because the movie, Thirteen Days, is about the Cuban missile crisis, and so he thought it would be very appropriate to have the Kennedy family here to watch the movie in the White House where so much of that movie took place.
Q:Does he have to watch his right flank on this, in getting so close to the Kennedys and --
MR. FLEISCHER: You mean in the theater tonight? (Laughter.)
Q:No, but, seriously, there is some grumbling among some conservatives that all this reaching out to liberals like Ted Kennedy, and the indications that he might fold on vouchers or step back his tax cut, is a sign of a President perhaps not as staunchly conservative as they would hope.
MR. FLEISCHER: I think what you're seeing is something very healthy for the process; that in Washington we can work together. And that is the way he is going to continue to do it. And he's going to keep trying to build coalitions that involve conservatives, that involve Democrats who are willing to work with him. And I think, frankly, we've had some good success so far, although there are still a lot of important tests to come. We haven't had any votes yet. But he's beginning that process.
And I want to say something -- whether the opposition or any hints of partisanship come from either the Republican side or the Democrat side, this is very much the way he governed in Texas, and it's very much the way a lot of governors, Democrat and Republican, govern in state capitals. And I've indicated this before -- it is a far, far better thing for Washington to be less partisan, like our state capitals, than people in the state capitals be more partisan like Washington. And that is the spirit in which he will govern, regardless of any criticism, left or right.
Q:He doesn't really think that you can have it all, do you? I mean, you can't satisfy the conservative right with John Ashcroft without alienating the left and the Congressional Black Caucus. I mean, you can't have it all, can you?
MR. FLEISCHER: Well, I think that you can have a very healthy balance of support in building coalitions. We are a system that enacts laws on the basis of a majority signed by the President; that will always be our goal. Some issues will lend themselves to 51 percent vote; some issues will lend themselves to votes of a bigger margin.
Q:Ari, does the President see the Ashcroft vote as his first test of this effort on his part to reach out and create a bipartisan atmosphere? You're going to have almost 40 Democrats voting against a former colleague even amidst all this conspicuous outreach from the White House to be bipartisan. And yet, they're not responding to it in this vote. Isn't this the very first test, and doesn't that suggest it's not working?
MR. FLEISCHER: In the event that the nomination is approved by the United States Senate, I think by definition you will see a nomination approved with a bipartisan vote. And that's encouraging. By definition.
Q:Ari, in this weekend's meeting with congressional members of Congress, how much of his time there is he going to use to nail down the details of the tax plan and the budget plan?
MR. FLEISCHER: No, it's not a bill drafting session. It's a retreat. And typically what happens at these retreats -- I've retreated to a number of them myself at the same facility in Williamsburg for many years. It's a real good get-together. It's an opportunity for members to just know that the Executive Branch is listening to them, and it's also an opportunity for the President to set a tone and set a direction, which is what he's going to do in his remarks to all those groups.
And it's important that people hear that message directly from the President. So far, we've had down to the White House -- I looked at the list just a little while ago -- we had 90 last week; I think we're up to about 150 or 160 members who were down here, and now it's roughly even between the two parties. There are many more members to go and he'll get to see a lot of them at the retreats.
Q:Ari, some Democrats are already starting to suggest that the administration can't afford to pay for all the programs it wants and the tax cut. How do you respond to that?
MR. FLEISCHER: Again, the math is simple. We have a non-Social Security surplus over the next year of $3.1 trillion. And the President is offering a tax cut that some have estimated over 10 years is $1.6 trillion. What we hope is that nobody is saying that so that they can leave more money on the table, because if they do, it will surely be spent. That's the way Washington works.
Washington was built to spend. And that's true whether we've had Democrats, Republicans. And that's one of the reasons the President wants to cut taxes and hold the line on spending.
Q:Does that accommodate education, faith-based --
MR. FLEISCHER: Absolutely, absolutely, absolutely. The budget we laid out during the campaign was fully paid for. And now, with the additional $1 trillion in surplus projected over the next 10 years by the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office, we will make all our budgets with even more room to spare, while paying down debt.
Q:On the tax cuts, does his tax plan include a cut in capital gains tax?
MR. FLEISCHER: No, the proposal the President made during the campaign does not. The proposal he will submit to the Congress will be based on his proposal during the campaign.
Q:Do we expect to have a nomination for ambassador to the United Nations real soon?
MR. FLEISCHER: On all the remaining personnel announcements, as soon as things are announceable, I will indicate it, but I'm not going to speculate on the timetables.
Q:Go back to tax cuts. When the Democrats talk about your tax cuts, they add in the interest cost of the tax cut. That money would otherwise go to paying down the debt, and since it's not, there's an interest cost associated with that. Is that fair to do? When they talk about your tax cut, they say when you count that in, it's close to $2 trillion, instead of $1.6 trillion.
MR. FLEISCHER: It's a wrong measuring stick. There is some validity, of course, to including in budget costs interest costs incurred. That is a valid measure. But to say that the tax cut is, and then they add an interest expense, $1.9 trillion, for example, is as wrong as wrong can be. The tax cut is the amount of money of taxes cut for the American people.
And I would just suggest that as people wrestle with this issue, and figure out how to address it, it's a slippery slope, unless people are prepared to ascribe an interest cost to each and every proposal made by Congress, to either spend money or cut taxes.
For example, if someone proposed a $500-billion expansion of Medicare for prescription drug coverage, do you want to now add in the cost of interest on that and say it's a $620-billion prescription drug program. It's not. That would be inaccurate.
I think the most accurate way to measure it is, the tax cut is the amount of taxes that get cut. Spending increases, the amount of spending -- I think it's increased. There is legitimately a third budget item that should be considered, which is the aggregate impact of tax and spending decisions on the interest expenses that government will incur. That should really be a third line-item to do it accurately.
Q:So adding those two together and then putting what the spending and taxes are, and then saying there's an interest cost in putting that in the budget as well --
MR. FLEISCHER: Absolutely proper. And we have done that, we will do that. That's the way budgets are typically done. The other side of that, of course, too, is if somebody comes up with a proposal -- for instance, Debbie talked about capital gains before. In 1997, when capital gains was cut and President Clinton signed it into law, the Clinton administration's Department of the Treasury estimated that a 10-year cut in capital gains actually raised revenue. So that raises revenue. That means it lowers interest expenses. Do you want to now add that into the cost of anything that raises revenue for the government? It's a very slippery slope for those of you who have to wrestle with it. I submit that if it's applied only to tax cuts, it would be inaccurate.
Q:Speaking of taxpayers, is it appropriate for taxpayers to pay three-quarters of a million dollars for President Clinton's office space? I ask this not to look back, but to look forward, because there's a move afoot to limit that amount that's actually allocated.
MR. FLEISCHER: And in that forward-looking spirit, the President understands that it is the purview of the Congress to be responsible for all appropriated items, and he understands congressional interest in this matter.
Q:But, Ari, doesn't he have an opinion on this?
MR. FLEISCHER: The President has not weighed in on that. He understands that Congress may look at it.
Q:But hang on here. Ari, can I stay on that for a second? Congress has appropriated $228,000 for office space for former President Clinton. The GSA is now about to enter into a lease which would be at least double that amount of money. That money would not come from Congress; that money would come from General Services appropriated to the funds. So they would have to shift and reallocate some funds. Is the President concerned that money from other programs that GSA already has earmarked will get pushed into this lease without going through Congress?
MR. FLEISCHER: I've addressed the question. That is the President's response. I talked to him about it this morning; that's his response.
Q:You said it's Congress' responsibility, but this may not go through Congress. It will go through one of your agencies.
MR. FLEISCHER: We discussed this morning a congressional inquiry into this matter, and that is his response to the congressional inquiry.
Q:He's going to be a former President one day, too; this is relevant. Why won't he express his opinion?
MR. FLEISCHER: I addressed that question. That was the question I put to him --
Q:He has no opinion, or is he not sharing his opinion with us?
MR. FLEISCHER: No, no, no, that was the question I put to him from your question this morning, and that was his answer.
Q:Ashcroft has been confirmed.
Q:Do you have a reaction?
Q:What's the vote?
Q:I think it was -- I don't have the vote. Do you have the vote there? (Laughter.)
Q:This just in, sort of. (Laughter.)
Q:They were still adding -- he has been confirmed, but they have to add it up --
MR. FLEISCHER: Are you saying this is a room full of reporters without information? (Laughter.) As I indicated earlier, the President will be very pleased to have his Cabinet in place and ready to work for the American people. He's very pleased with the entire confirmation of nomination process. The votes have been bipartisan, and this vote, by definition, too, is bipartisan.
Q:By definition? There were only six or seven Democrats.
Q:On the New Freedom Initiative, was Senator Cleland involved in the process, since he -- he's a Democrat, but he's the only Senator in wheelchair in the Senate, and he's a triple amputee, which is record.
MR. FLEISCHER: I'd have to find out from Congressional Affairs. The process began during the campaign when the President made this proposal. And this was something that the President wanted to do, and any consultations I'm not aware of.
Q:He wasn't present in the East Room?
MR. FLEISCHER: As I say, I'm not aware of any consultations.
Q:Ari, I want to go back to the lease. Let me try one last time. Congressman Istook is making an inquiry, but there are also indications this lease could be signed by an agency that is part of this administration, within a matter of days. Does the President not wish to give some signal to the GSA as to whether it's okay to go ahead and sign such a costly lease?
MR. FLEISCHER: That was the extent of my conversation on that question with the President this morning, so I fully shared it with you.
Q:What did he say exactly?
MR. FLEISCHER: I talked to him about the Congressman -- I took a question this morning at the gaggle about Congressman Istook's request or suggestion that this should be looked into. And the President indicated just what I said.
Q:Would you take him a question about whether --
MR. FLEISCHER: I'll see if there's anything further.
Q:Ari, a question about the disability event today. Has the President expressed any concern about the Americans with Disabilities Act's impact on small businesses or on proliferation of sometimes frivolous lawsuits? And is there anything in the initiative that would modify the ADA in any way?
MR. FLEISCHER: Well, in terms of modify the ADA, it's a proposal to add on to the ADA. And so the answer to that is yes, in that sense. I have not heard the President address it in any other manner than what he described today and what he described during the campaign.
Q:On the theme of bipartisanship, is the President inclined to let Democratic U.S. Attorneys fill out their terms, especially in places like New York, where there's some precedent for that?
MR. FLEISCHER: Let me see what we're doing with the U.S. Attorneys. Let me take that and get back to you.
Q:February 1st, Black History Month.
MR. FLEISCHER: Yes.
Q:President Bush is talking about inclusion, healing, civil rights are cornerstone of his administration. Is he going to celebrate Black History Month in a way of bringing initiatives and things of that nature?
MR. FLEISCHER: A proclamation is in the works and as soon as it is done and final we will issue it and have it for you.
Q:Will John Ashcroft be part of that?
MR. FLEISCHER: I have not read the language of the proclamation.
Q:President Clinton is giving an interview to Israeli TV at a very delicate juncture in both Israeli politics and the peace process. Does the President believe that's helpful?
MR. FLEISCHER: I haven't discussed it with him.
Q:Ari, you said, by definition the Ashcroft vote would be bipartisan. But also, by any mathematics, it is the least bipartisan of all of the confirmation votes. What does it say to you about the ability of this administration to communicate to Democrats its message about a controversial nominee and their ability to respond?
MR. FLEISCHER: I've been in this town a long time and I've seen a lot of votes in the Senate that had a small number of members of the opposite party vote with someone, and those have been labeled bipartisan in the past. So I think that same standard ought to apply here.
Q:Why -- in the past or now?
MR. FLEISCHER: Because I think it's accurate.
Q:It's accurate, but --
Q:On the congressional retreats, how did the invitations to the Democratic retreats come about?
MR. FLEISCHER: It was kind of a mutual thing. The President let it be known that he would be willing to go, and he was invited.
Q:Will he also be taking questions at the retreat in addition to just providing prepared remarks? A couple House members said they thought it was sort of a condition of him coming, that they would be able to ask him policy questions --
MR. FLEISCHER: Tradition of him coming? Presidents -- Q:No, no, an expectation of him coming.
MR. FLEISCHER: Oh.
Q:They would want the opportunity and the opportunity would be provided for them to ask questions of the President.
MR. FLEISCHER: I haven't looked at the agenda in that detail. I'll be there tomorrow.
Q:Would that surprise you?
MR. FLEISCHER: I'll be there, and so I'll find out.
Q:There are reports that former President Clinton is going to Israel a couple of days before the election. Does the White House think that is a proper role for him to be playing?
MR. FLEISCHER: I'd refer you to State as far as that goes.
Q:You don't have an opinion? You don't know whether or not he is --
MR. FLEISCHER: It's not been a topic of discussion.
Q:-- getting involved in their election?
MR. FLEISCHER: It's not been a topic of any discussions that I've been involved in.
Q:Can you take the question?
MR. FLEISCHER: Let me see what I can do on that one, Ron.
Q:Has the President done away with the playing of "Hail to the Chief," at routine events? Does he have a policy --
MR. FLEISCHER: No, he has not gotten rid of that. It will be played -- I think it will just be played at fewer occasions rather than more occasions, but it will, indeed, be played.
Q:Does he not like the song, or what's the --
MR. FLEISCHER: He likes the song a whole lot, as a matter of fact. He worked hard to get it played. But it will be played, just not at every occasion.
Q:How does he decide?
MR. FLEISCHER: For example, there are some events that -- in our first week, the room was filled up and we didn't have a band in there. There will be other occasions where we will and we'll have it played. There's really no rhyme or reason. It's just going to be an occasional thing.
Q:Has it been played at any events, Ari, as far as you know?
MR. FLEISCHER: I don't think. Not yet.
Q:Has he hummed it or whistled it on the way in -- (laughter.)
MR. FLEISCHER: I don't know when he left campus -- on the occasions when I was with him when he did, I didn't hear it played -- humming and whistling --
Q:But why --
MR. FLEISCHER: I don't know.
Q:Did he dance to it?
MR. FLEISCHER: He box--stepped to it.
Q:Why on fewer occasions? Was it used too much under Clinton and you want to save it for --
MR. FLEISCHER: No. Like I said, I think there's really no fancy rhyme or reason to it.
Q:Ari, you have one Democrat in the Cabinet, Norman Mineta. Are there any other Democrats in consideration, say, for example, the U.N., or some of the other jobs that are still out there?
MR. FLEISCHER: Well, of course, you notice that the person the President chose to head his faith-based office is a Democrat. As any other announcements get made, we will report them and you'll be able to evaluate at that time.
Q:Is the President going to be paying any special attention to the Israeli election as far as monitoring it, and if he is, in what way? And did he ever mention of any special preference that he has in the outcome?
MR. FLEISCHER: The President, of course, is aware of this election, but he's not going to involve himself in any way.
Q:He has never said any preference, like who he'd rather have --
Q:Ari, at the prayer meeting this morning, did he have any contact, interaction with other foreign leaders?
MR. FLEISCHER: I asked that, and I'm advised, no.
Q:You were going to give us a week ahead, since you're not going to be here tomorrow.
MR. FLEISCHER: I'm not prepared to do that today. What I'm going to do is try to do that with the pool, and then you'll get the pool report. It will be a week ahead from Williamsburg.
Q:Do you know what the themes will be here, just in general, next week?
MR. FLEISCHER: Taxes. Taxes and budget.
Q:If tomorrow morning's event at the Library of Congress is such an extraordinary occasion, why is it closed? Why is the coverage closed?
MR. FLEISCHER: Retreats are traditionally closed events.
Q:Except for Williamsburg, which is open.
MR. FLEISCHER: That's an usual event.
Q:Ari, what about the radio address? Is that going to be live or is he going to tape it?
MR. FLEISCHER: It will be taped.
Q:With enough time ahead of time to have a transcript?
MR. FLEISCHER: I'd like to, if I can.
Q:Is he still going to Camp David Friday night?
MR. FLEISCHER: Yes, he is.
END 2:15 P.M. EST
Ari Fleischer, Press Briefing by Ari Fleischer Online by Gerhard Peters and John T. Woolley, The American Presidency Project https://www.presidency.ucsb.edu/node/271496