Press Briefing by Ari Fleischer
1:25 P.M. EST
MR. FLEISCHER: Good afternoon. I want to give you an update on the President's day, one brief announcement about an event coming up tomorrow and then I'll be happy to take questions.
The President this morning had his intelligence meetings, as well as his briefing by the Federal Bureau of Investigations on recent events on the two fronts on the war against terrorism. He convened a meeting of his National Security Council, and he has just concluded a lunch with Chairman Alan Greenspan, to talk about the economy.
The President, mid-afternoon, will meet with the Prime Minister of Sweden in the Oval Office to talk about the United States and Sweden and our joint efforts against terrorism, as well as other bilateral issues involving our strong relationship with Sweden.
And this evening the President looks forward to welcoming to the White House all members of Congress for the annual Congressional Ball.
Tomorrow, the Drug Enforcement Administration will hold a national symposium on narco-terrorism, called Target America: Traffickers, Terrorists and Your Kids. This will take place at their headquarters in Arlington, Virginia. The symposium will help educate the world on the historical links between the activities of terrorists and those of narcotics traffickers around the world.
And with that, I'm happy to take questions.
Q:Prime Minister Sharon said that Israel will -- he was kind of using President Bush's words, saying Israel will chase after those responsible for terror, those who carry it out and those who assist, and they will pay a price.
Does the President agree that the PLO has violated the doctrine that goes after terrorist-harboring people?
MR. FLEISCHER: Ron, as the President said yesterday, he believes that Chairman Arafat must do everything in his power to find those who murdered innocent Israelis and bring them to justice. And the President understands that Israel has a right to defend herself.
The President also urges that all parties must be cognizant of the fact that they have to consider the consequences of whatever the actions they take today for how it impacts events tomorrow.
Q:Yes, but the question was, does he agree with Israel that the PLO is a terrorist-harboring regime and, therefore, they can go to war against them?
MR. FLEISCHER: The President clearly believes that Chairman Arafat has to make a 100 percent effort to find those who are responsible for these terrorist acts and bring them to justice.
Q:Ari, does he hold -- Sharon said that he holds Arafat directly responsible for the attacks. Does the administration agree with that?
MR. FLEISCHER: I think I've told you what the President thinks about that point.
Q:Is the President concerned that his apparent endorsement of Israel's right to -- his endorsement of Israel's right to defend itself will be seen in the Muslim world as yet another reason for the United States to be seen as anti-Muslim?
MR. FLEISCHER: I think, Bill, throughout the world there is horror about yesterday's savage attacks, the attacks that took place Saturday, over the weekend in Israel. And many nations of the world have condemned this. Again, the President's point of view is that Israel is a sovereign government. Israel has the right to defend herself. But the President also reminds all to be concerned with the consequences of any actions taken today for their impact on achieving peace tomorrow.
Q:Ari, Prime Minister Sharon spoke in very dramatic terms of war, and he said that the response so far is just the beginning. Does the President believe that the Israeli military response, as it has occurred so far, is justified, is legitimate?
MR. FLEISCHER: Terry, I'm not going to comment on the minute-by-minute events in the Middle East. The situation is complicated. The situation is fluid. I've explained to you already in broad form what the President believes.
Q:But does the President's belief in Israel's right to self defense include the campaign that Israel has begun?
MR. FLEISCHER: Again, I said -- for the third time, I will say, the President understands that Israel is a sovereign government. Israel has the right to defend herself.
Q:So was that a "yes" to that question or not?
Q:Prime Minister Sharon indicated that he was going to be calling the government together to make some critical decisions in the future. And he left a very strong implication on the table that among the most important decisions will be whether the government declares Yasser Arafat an enemy and, therefore, worthy of being taken out, or removed by the Israeli government militarily. Does the administration have any comment whatsoever, as the Israeli government considers this potential escalating move?
MR. FLEISCHER: Well, the President believes very strongly that this is a moment for Yasser Arafat to demonstrate that he stands with those who seek peace. The President, as he said yesterday, said that there are some who support peace and want us to achieve peace, and that there are others who will use violence and terror to disrupt any progress that's being made toward peace. The President thinks that this is the chance now for Yasser Arafat to demonstrate real leadership that is lasting, that is enduring, that puts people responsible for this away and does so in such a way that they cannot get out again and commit more terror.
The President thinks it's very important that the Palestinian jails not only have bars on the front, but no longer have revolving doors at the back. And that's the President's view.
Q:May I follow-up, Ari? Can you comment, generally, on what the Palestinian Authority has done so far? They put out about 120 suspected terrorists or organizers within Hamas and the Palestinian Jihad have been arrested. There's a state of emergency imposed. The Palestinians are looking for some reaction from the United States that this is a step in the right direction, or a move that the administration believes is at least helpful.
MR. FLEISCHER: I think the President's point of view, as he expressed yesterday, again, is that this is a time for Chairman Arafat, as the President said, to do everything in his power to find those who murdered innocent Israelis and bring them to justice. Only time will tell if Chairman Arafat honors that call.
Q:Does the United States have any plans to go after Hamas or Islamic Jihad, or is it going to be left up to Israel to go after them on their own?
MR. FLEISCHER: The United States is still involved in phase one of defending our nation against the attack that took place, and that involves Afghanistan and the al Qaeda organization and the Taliban.
Q:During the one-hour meeting yesterday, did at any time President Bush ask Prime Minister Sharon for restraint?
MR. FLEISCHER: During that meeting yesterday, I think it's fair to say that the United States did not give anybody a green light because nobody asked for a green light.
Q:In the day since Sharon has left the U.S. and gone --
Q:Can you answer the question?
MR. FLEISCHER: Go ahead.
Q:In the day since Sharon has left here and gone back to Israel, has there been any phone conversation between he and Bush? Have they talked since these attacks have begun, any sort of contact between the two?
MR. FLEISCHER: Between the President and Prime Minister Sharon? No, there has not.
Q:Do we still have General Zinni over there? And, if so, what is the role of our negotiators over there right now?
MR. FLEISCHER: General Zinni remains in the region. And again, as I said earlier, that the situation at this moment is complicated and fluid, but he remains in the region.
Q:Does he plan to stay there?
MR. FLEISCHER: I'm sorry?
Q:Does he plan to stay?
MR. FLEISCHER: For some period of time. I can't define for you exactly how long that is. Of course, at some point he was always going to come back to the United States. Talk to the State Department to determine his exact agenda on a daily basis.
Q:And has the President spoken with him or anybody else in the region that you can tell us about?
MR. FLEISCHER: Well, he spoke with Prime Minister Sharon yesterday; he spoke with Secretary Powell this morning; he's talked with Condoleezza Rice, his National Security Advisor, just moments ago. So he'll stay very closely informed and on top of it.
Q:Prime Minister Sharon seemed to draw a moral equivalence between what Israel is confronting now and what the United States is confronting and has confronted since 9/11. Does the administration endorse that moral equivalence that Prime Minister Sharon laid out in his speech?
MR. FLEISCHER: The President has made clear all along that there can be no good terrorists and no bad terrorists. And I leave it at that.
Q:If I could just return to this question on restraint. And, obviously, it's been the U.S. position for many years that Israel is a sovereign nation. And, yet, this has never stopped the U.S. in the past, and this administration in the past from calling for restraint at various moments.
Are you suggesting in the formulation that you've been giving that, in fact, because they are a sovereign nation it will no longer be the U.S.'s role to offer at various moments suggestions for restraint or to target individuals?
MR. FLEISCHER: I think Secretary Powell addressed that yesterday, when he said that it's important that all parties -- Israel included -- remember that the consequences of what they do today will have an impact on the consequences of the day after today or tomorrow. And I leave it at that.
Q:Ari, has the President's position, or even his emphasis on the conflict changed in recent days? Or is it exactly the same as when he took office?
MR. FLEISCHER: Well, I think as the President indicated when he got off the helicopter and returned to the White House prior to his meeting with Prime Minister Sharon last night, that these were horrific acts of murder that took place in Israel.
But the President, again, remains committed to peace in the region. And I leave it there.
Q:So he sounds like he's currently a little more upset than he might have been earlier, in terms of what Palestinians are doing -- whereas before he was admonishing both sides to rein in something --
MR. FLEISCHER: No, I think the President's words spoke for themselves yesterday.
Q:You say that the U.S. did not give anyone a green light. What are you saying there? Did the President give Sharon some sort of light? A yellow light? (Laughter.)
MR. FLEISCHER: No. As I indicated, Prime Minister Sharon did not ask for a green light, therefore, it was not -- President Bush was not in a position to give or not give.
Q:You're saying that Israel did not ask the U.S. in any way for its advice on what should happen now and what the results would be?
MR. FLEISCHER: I think I've expressed it.
Q:If I could, if I could just follow that up. On the peace process, how do you see -- under the current circumstances, how does the U.S. see the peace process coming through the end of this conflict, that at the moment appears to be worsening?
MR. FLEISCHER: Well, the history of the Middle East has been one of a long standing period of violence and hope. And the President has not, and will not, give up hope that peace can be achieved in the Middle East, even despite the activities of the weekend.
Q:Can you walk us through, Ari, when the President learned of the Israeli military action?
MR. FLEISCHER: The President learned of it during his meeting in the National Security Council this morning. And then he was informed, briefed on Prime Minister Sharon's speech by Dr. Rice, following the speech. The President was having with Chairman Greenspan during the speech.
Q:So there wasn't any advance tip from Israel that this was coming? The President had not been informed that this was --
MR. FLEISCHER: That's the best of the information that I've been provided.
Q:You told us this morning that he may have been in the Situation Room. Can you nail that down?
MR. FLEISCHER: That's what I just confirmed. Yes, the President was --
Q:He was, indeed, in the Situation Room?
MR. FLEISCHER: Yes. He was in a meeting of the National Security Council this morning when the attack took place.
Q:What was his general reaction to Sharon's speech, if you can't tell us whether or not he agreed with the statements he made? What did he think? The rhetoric was clearly stronger than we've heard most recently.
MR. FLEISCHER: He thinks just what he said yesterday, upon return from Camp David. He said that Chairman Arafat has to do everything in his power to bring the terrorists to justice --
Q:No, his reaction to Sharon's speech?
MR. FLEISCHER: It was the same as what he said yesterday.
Q:Secretary Rumsfeld yesterday was openly skeptical of Arafat's ability to control events on the ground. Does the President share that skepticism?
MR. FLEISCHER: I think the President recognizes that it is a very complicated situation, both in the West Bank and in Gaza. And even despite those complications, that now is the time, that it's very important for Chairman Arafat to demonstrate that he does have control, that he is a leader who is capable of making a 100 percent effort to reduce or stop the violence. That's what the President believes.
Q:The Secretary of Defense didn't say things were complicated, he said, Arafat probably doesn't control events. Does the President --
MR. FLEISCHER: Well, as I've indicated, the President recognizes that events are rather complicated and fluid. But that does not change the fact that Chairman Arafat has an obligation to make a 100 percent effort, in the President's opinion, to stop the violence.
Q:You've been asking him to give it 100 percent effort for quite some time. How much more time does he have?
MR. FLEISCHER: Well, I'm not going to -- that is the President's point of view. And I think it's just a reflection about the enduring difficulties of bringing peace to the Middle East. But as difficult as it is, it does not stop the President in any from working toward achieving that goal, even despite the current violence.
Q:Ari, going back to these two questions -- yes, since President Bush has been in office since January, he has been asking for Yasser Arafat to come up with ways to help achieve peace. Yasser Arafat has not fulfilled what the President has asked, therefore he hasn't had a meeting with the President.
What, realistically, does President Bush think will happen with this request for 100 percent compliance to resolve the situation?
MR. FLEISCHER: Well, what's the alternative? This has been a situation in the Middle East that pre-dated January 20th, it's pre-dated many Presidents' terms. But that does not mean the United States will ever stop pushing for ways to bring the parties together to achieve peace.
But it's a reminder of what President Bush said during the campaign, that is, responsibility of the parties, themselves, to work together to achieve peace because, despite the best efforts of the United States and other nations to help them to achieve peace, fundamentally, the best way to achieve peace in the Middle East is through the willingness of the two parties.
Q:But both sides are coming here, looking to the White House, looking to President Bush for help to fix the situation.
MR. FLEISCHER: And that was the case prior to January 20th, as well, and violence took place in the Middle East prior to then, too.
So despite the various manner in which peace has been negotiated -- whether it was in the past, under a previous administration or now -- violence has taken place in the Middle East. The message from the President is that the United States will continue be there to assist and to help in that endeavor.
Q:To follow up a little bit on that, does the President have confidence in Chairman Arafat's ability to lead the Palestinians, given the events of the last several months?
MR. FLEISCHER: No difference on that question before. It's a complicated and fluid situation, but the President again calls on Chairman Arafat to make every effort to get the violence under control, to arrest those who've engaged in terrorism and bring them to justice.
Q:Can we shift gears a little bit to Chairman Greenspan? (Laughter.) Can you give us some more information, such as, who requested the meeting, what was discussed, how long was the meeting? Why was the meeting called for now, what happened in the economy to spark some concern?
MR. FLEISCHER: Well, the President has met on a periodic basis with Chairman Greenspan before and it's likely he will do so again. It was a private meeting. But suffice it to say that the President was interested in listening to the Chairman's points of view on the economy. The President is deeply concerned about the economy; he's deeply concerned about unemployed workers and those who may lose their jobs in the future if the economy doesn't recover.
It's one of the reasons tomorrow, for example, that the President is traveling to Florida, to meet with a successful program that helps dislocated workers. The President cares very much about those who have lost their jobs. He has a plan that has been passed by the House, and if the Senate would pass it, it would be a good benefit to the unemployed.
So the President has the economy on his mind, despite events around the world, and he was pleased to have the lunch today.
Q:Did the President request the meeting, then, with the Chairman or was it --
MR. FLEISCHER: I couldn't tell you who requested it, I can report to you it literally just broke up.
Q:Just to follow up on that, is it right to see this as part of a --
MR. FLEISCHER: Paula, and then I'll come back up.
Q:Okay, it's the same topic, though.
MR. FLEISCHER: That's okay. I'm sure this is, too, if I know Paula.
Q:On the economy, Senator Conrad, on Friday, said that the Treasury Department has informed him of its plans to raise the debt ceiling, request an increase in the public debt ceiling. In light of that and your OMB Director's announcement a few days ago of deficit projections through 2005, is the White House at all revisiting the idea of a smaller-scaled economic stimulus package?
MR. FLEISCHER: No, because the President believes that the best way to create growth and, therefore, surpluses is through a stimulus that helps people get back to work and it helps businesses employ their workers. So that makes no change at all in the President's position.
Q:Just to close out on the Greenspan topic. It is incorrect to understand that this is part of a regular, periodic series of meetings that President Bush and former Presidents have generally had with the Chairman of the Fed? It was not a specific thing triggered by any specific event?
MR. FLEISCHER: That's correct. That's correct.
Q:Okay. Thank you.
Q:Does the President plan to meet with congressional leaders tomorrow morning? And, if so, what's he going to emphasize? And will he have any new ideas on the stimulus, given that things are not moving very quickly?
MR. FLEISCHER: The President will meet with the congressional leaders on Wednesday, Wednesday morning. And there was progress over the weekend in terms of the process by which the Senate and the House will now begin their endeavors.
But, again, the President just cannot imagine that the Senate would possibly leave town without passing an economic stimulus that can be signed into law. He understands, just as the Senate leaders do, that they were sent to Washington to get things done. And it is just beyond the President's imagination that the Senate would possibly leave town without finishing its work.
Q:Why hasn't the President done more to lobby the Democrats and Republicans to give him trade promotion authority? And what will he do in the next two or three days leading up to the vote to make sure that that bill --
MR. FLEISCHER: Well, the President has lobbied on this issue extensively. Going back to the summer, if you recall, the President held a series of meetings in anticipation of the vote with House Democrats, with House Republicans. He met with House Democrats just some three weeks ago in the Cabinet Room here at the White House and brought down, oh, about a dozen or 15 Democrats to talk about it. The President is prepared as the week goes along to take up additional activity as necessary.
So the President looks forward to the vote Thursday. He believes -- I think it's Thursday. He believes that it's very important to send the world a signal that the United States stands for free trade. He thinks it's also very helpful to the pocketbooks of working Americans that this get passed into law.
Q:Any chance that the administration will offer to link the stimulus bill with trade promotion authority, and try to wrap all this up and get it done this week?
MR. FLEISCHER: Well, the President believes that trade promotion authority is a stimulus in and of itself. It represents a long-term stimulus to help the economy keep growing. And that's one of the reasons that the President believes in it so strongly. He also believes it's a very helpful way to let developing nations around the world achieve more growth through the powers of free trade.
Q:One more on Israel. We're not just seeing a different rhetoric, but a different policy from Prime Minister Sharon's government, that the military way is the path to peace. Does the administration believe that we're witnessing a change in circumstances in the Middle East, requiring a change in approach from the administration? Or is the same approach of encouraging the parties to get together, get on Tenet, get on Mitchell, get to final status the same?
MR. FLEISCHER: I think I've addressed this issue in its entirety.
Q:Ari, the problem in the Middle East is going -- like bombings in the Middle East are like bombings in India, comparable. That's what the Prime Minister also said the other day. Now what I'm asking you is, if the President has spoken with the Arab leaders or any other world leaders on this problem and, at the same time, if he has issued any ultimatum for Arafat or the terrorists there?
MR. FLEISCHER: The President has had a consistent message throughout the world about terror. And I want to remind you that Hezbollah, the Islamic Jihad, the Palestinian Islamic Jihad and other organizations that are operating in that region have already been identified by the State Department as terrorist organizations. And the President recognizes it as such.
Q:At tomorrow's event, when he's talking about dislocated workers, are these dislocated workers from competition from abroad, or dislocated in sort of the general sense of unemployed? And has the White House come up with the figure for how much it's willing to spend on dislocated worker program?
MR. FLEISCHER: Okay, two separate topics. The meeting the President is having tomorrow is in conjunction with the event that really has damaged the economy, and that was the attack on our country September 11th. The President has made a proposal that's part of the economic stimulus package, to have national emergency grants, which states can administer to help various individuals within their states, to get back on their feet, to have health care coverage. Florida's tourism industry has been particularly hard hit as a result of the attack on the 11th. And the President will be meeting with people who are benefiting from a program that helps those, primarily in this case, in the tourist industry.
Separate and apart from that is the issue of trade adjustment assistance or the TAA program, which commonly is associated with trade and trade promotion. And the President believes that it's important for the House to pass the trade bill this week because it is a net plus for jobs and for the economy. Recognizing that there may be sectors within trade that can be adversely affected, the President supports trade adjustment assistance to help any sector.
But broadly speaking, when you add it all up, the President knows that trade promotion authority is good for the country, good for the economy, and creates jobs for America's workers.
Q:-- trade adjustment assistance? Is there a figure? I understand there's some dispute over how much should actually go for that.
MR. FLEISCHER: Well, I think that's one of the issues that the President's going to look forward to working with the Congress on as the discussions move along.
Q:Ari, the weekend capture of a man in Afghanistan seems to present the U.S. with maybe an unforeseen scenario -- an American fighting for the Taliban. What's the legal status of this fellow?
MR. FLEISCHER: I'm going to refer these questions to the Department of Defense. They are the appropriate authority on that, so I think they could fill you in. But it's premature; I know the Department of Defense has not gotten to the point where it's considering that matter.
Q:But what will the President's view be of an American fighting for the Taliban?
MR. FLEISCHER: Well, I'm not going to comment to any one specific because, again, the facts are still being established by the Department of Defense. But this is, as the President has said, a war against the Taliban and a war against al Qaeda, regardless of who it composes.
Q:Ari, is there a concern about -- that an escalation in Israeli-Palestinian violence might create problems for us in Afghanistan or in our own war against terror, as some of our coalition partners --
MR. FLEISCHER: Again, I think we've addressed that topic. The President is still committed to doing what needs to be done with al Qaeda and with the Taliban.
Q:In the past, any time the President made statements about the Middle East and Secretary Powell, they have never been as strong on Arafat, Chairman Arafat, as they were yesterday. The President publicly, here in the White House, and Secretary Powell in one of the Sunday talk shows.
Are there any opportunities or does the government intend to speak with Chairman Arafat by phone or other communications? Or is it going to be public --
MR. FLEISCHER: Well, Secretary Powell did speak with him directly on Saturday night.
Q:In a similar set of violence in 1997, Chairman Arafat managed to keep all -- virtually all violence, all terrorism at bay for three years. What will it take now for the White House to consider Arafat truly a credible partner in peace?
MR. FLEISCHER: Well, that's why the President yesterday called on Chairman Arafat to demonstrate that he is an advocate for peace in the Middle East, and to do so through action, not words.
Q:But what I'm saying is, if he managed to do it for three years, and then it resumed, how long do we need to give him? What will we really need to see in order to judge that this is --
MR. FLEISCHER: Well, the President didn't speculate on any timetable, but he did make his message very clear.
Q:In preparing the Israeli people for the next phase of this conflict, Prime Minister Sharon used a lot of language today that could have been taken right out of President Bush's own plans. He said this war won't be easy, the war will be long, Israel will prevail. Did Sharon open up a second front in the war on terrorism today?
MR. FLEISCHER: Well, again, the President yesterday made very clear that there are some in the world who do not want to achieve peace in the Middle East, and there are some that, given every chance they have, will use violence to achieve their goals. The President has said that is not acceptable.
And this is Yasser Arafat's chance to step up, to demonstrate that he is a leader and a leader who is committed to a lasting, enduring peace. It's important for Chairman Arafat to assume that mantle, in the President's opinion.
Q:I'm with the Israeli press and, you know, there is growing support in the Israeli government to eliminate Yasser Arafat, even physically. Is this by any means a legitimate war on terrorism?
MR. FLEISCHER: Again, the President has made clear that he believes Chairman Arafat has to do everything possible to demonstrate that he stands for peace.
Q:There's a couple questions that you haven't directly answered. I want to make sure you're not answering them on purpose. (Laughter.) if you can, yes or no.
Q:All of the above. (Laughter.)
Q:Yes or no, does President Bush believe Yasser Arafat is directly responsible? Was Israel justified in the actions it took today? And did President Bush, himself, urge restraint in the meeting yesterday with the Prime Minister?
MR. FLEISCHER: All three I would refer you to my earlier responses.
Q:I would like you to try respond to the way the Palestinians have reacted to Mr. Sharon's speech. Saeb Erakat, on our network, said he interpreted it as a declaration of war and he urged in the strongest terms possible President Bush to step in and, in his words, "stop Sharon from going forward."
First, does the administration interpret Mr. Sharon's speech as a declaration of war? And, second, does the President feel it's incumbent on him in any way to intervene, to stop Mr. Sharon from what he may or may not be intending to do?
MR. FLEISCHER: Again, there's nothing that's going to change any of the answers I've given before. I refer you to the above.
Q:Ari, Congress is holding a special event tomorrow, prayer and reconciliation in response to the 9/11 attacks. Is the President going to be back from Florida to attend that session tomorrow?
MR. FLEISCHER: I haven't looked at his schedule in its entirety, but I do not believe so. We get back pretty early into the evening, late into -- well, we get back here probably about 7:30 p.m. or so.
Q:Does the President welcome this kind of gesture that the Congress is taking tomorrow night? What does he hope can be accomplished?
MR. FLEISCHER: This is the first word I've heard about it, so I would hesitate, as positive as it clearly sounds, until I've been able to take a look at it independently. I wouldn't want to venture into something I haven't heard.
END 1:52 P.M. EST
George W. Bush, Press Briefing by Ari Fleischer Online by Gerhard Peters and John T. Woolley, The American Presidency Project https://www.presidency.ucsb.edu/node/271828