Press Briefing by Chief of Staff Leon Panetta and Chief of Staff-Designate Erskine Bowles
The Briefing Room
2:55 P.M. EST
MR. MCCURRY: Good afternoon, everyone. I had a number of requests for a little bit of behind-the-scenes tick-tock on the decision that the President has made. You'll all recall that I told you during the last several days that there really were four people who did these deliberations and worked together and thought through so many of the issues -- three of them, obviously, except for the President: the Vice President; the Chief of Staff, Mr. Panetta; and the Chief of Staff-designate, Mr. Bowles.
It's a pleasure to have two of those four here. And I will turn the podium over first to Mr. Panetta and then to Mr. Bowles. And we will proceed accordingly.
MR. PANETTA: What I wanted to do is give you a little bit of background as we approach these decisions and what took place, and then have Erskine -- I'll take it up to roughly the election day and what happened last night, and have Erskine describe the process from the election day to the decision that was finally made.
We began to first meet on the transition actually about three to four weeks before the election itself to begin to talk about putting a process in place and ensuring that we had developed after the election the process that was in place so that we could present the President with the best background and the best information possible on the names that he would have to consider for those that were to be replaced.
At the time, basically it was myself, Erskine and Vernon Jordan and Mickey Kantor were the ones that began this discussion. At the time, we thought it was well that I would interview all of the Cabinet members to determined what their plans were and at the same time have Evelyn Lieberman talk to White House staff as well.
As a result of those discussions that I had, it was clear that Secretary Christopher wanted to move on, as did Secretary Perry, and that obviously then began to lead us to a discussion of possible candidates to replace them.
I have to tell you, we had one discussion prior to the election with the President in which we began to talk about possible replacements for Secretary of State and Secretary of Defense, and at that time in one of the very early meetings we had with the President, we discussed the possibility of Madeleine Albright as Secretary of State and Bill Cohen as Defense Secretary at that time.
That isn't to say that we didn't begin the process of looking at a number of other names, as all of you can imagine. But I do want to make clear that we had thought very early on of the combination of Madeleine Albright and Bill Cohen as one possibility at that point.
We then, during that time, began the process of continuing to have discussions among that group as we moved towards the election. On election day, as you may recall, Secretary Christopher actually came down to Little Rock and met with the President to formally indicate his plans for the President, and at that time indicated his comments about possible replacements, of which Madeleine Albright was clearly one of those that he said would be an excellent replacement for him as Secretary of State.
We then, after the election, began the transition process, and I'll let Erskine get into that. I should point out, though, that the final decision was not made until last night, and it came during the Congressional Ball -- at which time I was having a dance with my wife, finally, and --
Q: Having danced with everybody else? (Laughter.)
MR. PANETTA: Having at least talked with everybody else. And I was asked to go upstairs and meet with the President, and went upstairs, the President having concluded shaking hands with, as you know, all the members that were there. And at that time, we sat down in the kitchen upstairs and he basically said, I think I've come to a conclusion here that I'd like to have Madeleine Albright as Secretary of State and Bill Cohen as Secretary of Defense. And I'd like to try to move towards an announcement on that.
We then talked about, obviously, moving ahead. We had talked about other members of the team at that point, and where Tony Lake would go -- knowing that John Deutch was also intending to leave -- and moving Sandy Berger up. And so we decided, obviously, that we ought to announce all of those members of the team last night, and moved with it this morning. The President made calls to Senator Mitchell, to Senator Nunn, to Holbrooke and, obviously, first and foremost, to Madeleine Albright and to Bill Cohen. And then we moved ahead with calls to the Hill, and the ceremony that took place.
In the end, let me just say this. I think the President said it right -- the final determination was because -- or the final -- the decision here by the President was because of the combination of qualities that Madeleine Albright brought to the position of Secretary of State. He had developed a close, working relationship with her over the last four years; she was part of the national security team. There were meetings on a weekly basis with that national security team. He was familiar with her, respected her, respected her decisions. Because of her background, because of her expertise, because of the work she did as Ambassador of the United Nations, but I think foremost, her determination as an individual, determination on some very critical issues, particularly when we dealt with Haiti and when we dealt with Bosnia -- those were issues that I think played a key role in the final decision.
Let me just turn it over.
Q: But she had all those qualities the first time you talked about her. Why didn't you just settle on her the first time you had this discussion?
MR. PANETTA: Because this President really wanted to have a full range of discussion on other possible candidates. All of these candidates would have made outstanding Secretaries of State. But he did not, and his nature is one of not just suddenly coming down -- he wanted to talk about other possibilities, consider them, get the backgrounds, have the opportunity to talk with them, and then make his decision on that basis.
Q: Did he call Pickering, too?
MR. PANETTA: No.
MR. BOWLES: Let me just talk a little bit about the process we've had so that some of the speculation that's gone on can maybe be a little bit more accurate or better informed. We have had a process that has been, I think, fairly well-organized from the beginning. We have moved forward against some very firm time lines. We are ahead of those time lines today and ahead of where we had wanted to be.
We have put together a transition team that has reached out to a broad cross-section of people from different backgrounds, different level of expertise. And we have used those people who in turn reach to even a broader group of people to get recommendations for each one of the Cabinet posts that we have been reviewing.
We have had daily meetings generally, sometimes every other day, with this group of people, refining this information. We have been going through extensive background checks on all of the people, reviewing their writings, talking to people who know them, talking to experts -- in the case of the ones we made today, all in foreign policy -- to prepare some detailed memorandum that we submitted to the President upon his return from his Far Eastern trip.
He took that information with him on Thanksgiving vacation. He reviewed that information. We had a number of discussions while he was gone. He made a number of telephone calls. He came back. He's been meeting with the Vice President, with Leon and myself since that time. He has been doing a lot of homework in his own right. And today, or last night, he reached the final decision as to who he wanted to name for the foreign policy team.
We had been looking at each one of these announcements as team; the chemistry as to how each one of the people will work with other members of the team and work with the President and the Vice President has been very important in the calculations we have made as to who to finally pick in the final analysis.
Q: Why is the President leaving Janet Reno twisting in the wind?
MR. BOWLES: I don't think that's an appropriate assessment. The President plans to meet with all of the members of the Cabinet over an organized period of time. I would expect that he would meet with General Reno as well as other members of the Cabinet next week or the week after.
Q: How many memorandum did you eventually prepare for the President to take away to review? Were there like a half a dozen or four?
MR. BOWLES: It was a different number for each one of the Cabinet positions.
Q: Well, say for State?
MR. BOWLES: For Secretary of State we probably prepared as many as six memoranda.
Q: And each of the other five people got a call today?
MR. BOWLES: All of the other people who have been considered for the post have been contacted. We are not going to speculate as to who those people have been or who other people might be for other positions that we haven't announced.
Q: But Leon already said that he called some individuals in particular, and was that because the President had actually personally interviewed those people and said, I'm considering you for this job and you should know that?
MR. PANETTA: Yes, I wanted to make clear that in my description that those were individuals that the President talked with. But that doesn't -- do not assume that there weren't other names that were also considered and discussed.
Q: But those were the personal ones. And what time was your dance interrupted, Leon? (Laughter.)
MR. PANETTA: I think it was about 9:00 p.m., a little after 9:00 p.m.
Q: Mr. Panetta, you said earlier that John Deutch had let it be known that he wasn't going to stay.
MR. PANETTA: Yes.
Q: Was that a development that happened earlier than we had assumed? People had said --
MR. PANETTA: Yes.
Q: -- he was a candidate for other jobs. Was that not the case?
MR. PANETTA: Yes. He had -- he was one of the ones -- obviously, as I went through the different Cabinet Secretaries before the election, I sat down with him and he indicated that he wanted to depart the CIA. But do not assume from that that he was also not in consideration for some other positions as well.
Q: Are those who have said they want to stay, does that assume that they will stay? I mean, did you go to each one now in the Cabinet and get an idea of whether they want to leave or stay?
MR. PANETTA: Yes.
Q: And did you give them any idea whether they could stay?
MR. PANETTA: Not necessarily, no. The purpose of that was to really talk with them and determine what their plans were, because the President wanted to know which -- I mean, obviously those Cabinet members that of their own volition wanted to move on, the President needed to know that. That did not assume that he might not want others to move on, but that's a discussion that we're having with Cabinet members.
Q: Will the rest of the Cabinet be named at one time, or will it come out piecemeal?
MR. BOWLES: It will come out piecemeal. We will probably name the economic team at one time, because again that's one of the chemistry-related efforts that we want to make sure that we focus on.
Q: Which positions are on the economic team?
MR. BOWLES: The CEA, the Treasury Secretary, the SBA, which I always like to think of, Commerce, Labor, the NEC.
Q: Is there any doubt whatsoever that Secretary Rubin would not remain as Treasury Secretary?
MR. BOWLES: Not in my mind.
Q: What about the White House staff?
Q: Is there a chemistry team then for every -- for let's say, Transportation?
MR. BOWLES: Well, we want to make sure that the whole Cabinet works together as a team. As you look at each one of the positions it does have an effect on the other position. But again, I think you have to look at those that are involved the most frequently with each other, and the economic team and the foreign policy team work as a group, generally.
Q: What about the White House staff? When do you expect that you will have announcements about who your deputies will be and Domestic Council and what's going on inside here?
MR. BOWLES: I would expect that you'll hear all of these before Christmas, is what we're working for.
Q: Is Mr. McCurry staying on?
MR. BOWLES: I certainly hope so.
Q: When you said before Christmas, you mean everything you just talked about, every area, or just White House staff?
MR. BOWLES: I hope -- our plan has always been to submit all of the names to the President for consideration by the time he got back from his trip. We accomplished that goal. Then our plan was to make decisions over an orderly period of time so that we could submit to the Congress in the first week of January the names of the people for confirmation. And then our hope was that the committees would meet during the early part of January so that they could be confirmed by the time the President is sworn in on January 20th. We don't know if the committees are actually going to meet, but we are well ahead of that schedule.
Q: So you gave him memos for the entire Cabinet, not just for the National Security team?
MR. BOWLES: He has memorandums now on each and every one of the positions that we're looking at.
Q: Mr. Bowles, do you think the NEC's management could be improved if you have two chairman -- co-chairmen -- as opposed to the structure you have now with one chairman?
MR. BOWLES: I have seen it work well in my business career with co-chairmen; I've seen it work well with single chairman. I think it depends on who the individuals are and how it's structured and how the overall team's organized.
Q: The President has now decided on who will be the foreign policy team, but we don't know what he's decided. Has he decided on an overall strategy that is represented by this team? Any change in direction or any one overarching theory or strategy of foreign policy?
MR. BOWLES: I think you can see that three of the members of the new team were members of the old team. And so I don't think you'll see a different strategy going forward than the one we've had before. We hope to build on the current strategy.
MR. MCCURRY: I think it's important to look back at some of the things the President said during the course of the campaign, in his speech on the future of Europe --
Q: Uncle. (Laughter.)
MR. MCCURRY: I want -- it's a good question. (Laughter.) And also the speech at the United Nations, in which he really has talked in a very specific way about the architecture of the post-Cold War era and how you define it. He had a first-term foreign policy team that really performed ably as the President set out an agenda and began to deal with these challenges.
But the President increasingly, as he said today, sees the next four years as an opportunity to really put together in a more coherent way a definition of America's place in the new world we're going to live in as we reach for the 21st century.
And those threats, as he's defined them -- the geopolitical threats of terrorism, drug trafficking and proliferation; secondly, the promotion of America's global economic security through trade arrangements; and third, dealing with those major alliances that define America's place in Europe and in Asia are going to be major parts of the equation.
We have important decisions coming up on the future of Europe and Russia's role in Europe, the future of Asia and whither China. On all these things, the President's thinking is well-developed. And today, he's produced a team that I think will really reflect his foreign policy as it has been and as it will be in the next four years.
Q: Do you expect there to be other Republicans in the Cabinet?
MR. BOWLES: As I said earlier, we're not going speculate on any of the other positions that could be -- we're certainly looking at some others.
Q: On the foreign policy team, which you said is almost -- is going to have to have a new U.S. Ambassador to the U.N. to replace Madeleine Albright -- how long before that person's chosen?
MR. BOWLES: We'll do it in an orderly fashion. We just have an opening today created, so we'll be hoping to fill it.
Q: Mr. Panetta, Mrs. Clinton has been an advocate in the past of appointing women and considering women for positions they haven't held before. Did she weigh in on the Secretary of State appointment this time?
MR. PANETTA: The conversations that we had with the President included the Vice President, Erskine Bowles and myself. That was the fundamental focus of the discussion. What discussions took place in the residence I don't know.
Q: The final conversation was just you and the President last night, correct?
Q: Mr. Bowles, does the President have any role in mind for George Mitchell now that he's not going to be Secretary of State?
MR. BOWLES: I think George Mitchell, again, was one of those that we think would have been an outstanding Secretary of State had he been chosen. The President's got a very close relationship with George Mitchell. He is going to continue to seek his advice on both foreign policy and domestic policy issues.
Q: Since you guys made the point that you are actually the only ones who have any --
MR. BOWLES: Mike points out that he obviously is going to continue to do the work that he is doing with regards to Northern Ireland. He's on his way back, as a matter of fact, from there now.
Q: Since you all pointed out that you're the only ones who really have any earthly idea of how these discussions have proceeded, and since Mr. Bowles gently but somewhat firmly rebuked us for all the rampant speculation we've indulged in -- (laughter) -- can you lift the table cloth a tiny bit here? Can you say a little bit more about how this proceeded -- I mean, when things crystallized in the President's mind? What did he do on the golf course yesterday afternoon? Was it one last moment to be alone with himself and his thoughts on this thing and kind of let it gel? Was there a moment a week ago when he called one of you and said, you know, really my gut tells me Madeleine and I just got to let it sort of titrate out here over the next week. (Laughter.) I mean, is there anything you can say about that? This is a desperate journalistic exercise. (Laughter.)
MR. BOWLES: This is pretty desperate. (Laughter.) The way -- the best way I can describe it is that we obviously had centered on a group of names for his consideration. But then beyond that, we obviously wanted to look at the foreign policy team and what a foreign policy team would look like and that obviously included the Secretary of Defense. And so there were a number of ways to approach this, in which you look at candidates and then look at possible combinations that we presented to the President and talked about. And I think he went through a consideration of those kinds of combinations in his own mind and what worked and how it would work.
And so that, I think, was a part of this. Part of this was just, as he spoke to each one of them he -- you know, he was greatly impressed with the discussions that he had with the key individuals involved here and saw their strengths. And I think he wanted to be able to consider that, as well. But in the end, I think it did -- I think the day he had on the golf course helped and I think the discussions he had late with Erskine and with the Vice President helped. And then last night it kind of all came together.
Q: Has the President already had personal conversations --
MR. MCCURRY: Todd, on that one, he told me yesterday, he said, you know, I always do my best thinking on the golf course. And it was clear that he was ready to do his best thinking on this subject yesterday afternoon.
Q: Do you have any comment on that picture in the Australian newspaper -- speaking about golf courses? (Laughter.)
MR. PANETTA: There were no candidates in the bushes. (Laughter.)
Q: The conversations you're talking about, that he's had one-on-one with people, has he begun to have those conversations with people who would be part of the economic team?
MR. PANETTA: Beyond --
Q: Has he begun to have these personal kind of interview conversations with people for the next round of appointments?
MR. PANETTA: His fundamental focus up to this point, although -- I mean, we discussed other areas, but the fundamental focus has really been on the national security slots.
Q: Can you say that he's now turning to the economic team, Leon, and this will be his next big priority?
MR. BOWLES: We'll be looking at all the other Cabinet positions now.
MR. PANETTA: We'll be looking at the others.
Q: Is the USTR included in the econ team?
MR. PANETTA: Yes.
Q: Can you all say, talking about partnerships, what it is about Cohen and Albright that you think make them a good team, how they complement each other, what you see about them that will make them work together well?
MR. PANETTA: Well, I think the great strengths are these: number one, that, obviously, for Madeleine, because of her performance as Ambassador at the UN, one of the considerations that the President wanted to look at for Secretary of State is obviously someone that he could trust when that individual had to sit down across the table from an adversary in a tough negotiation. And he felt very comfortable with her ability to be able to sit there, represent the United States, and be tough in that negotiation.
Secondly, resources for the Department of State. It is extremely important that we try to provide additional resources for the Department of State. Congress has been tough, as you know, with regards to providing those additional funds. She has a very good relationship with the Hill and with the committees that have overseen her operation. So we felt very comfortable with her ability to do that.
Combined with Bill Cohen, who obviously, because Congress is Republican and because of his relationship to the leadership, would also be able to address resources as well and be part of that team. Bill Cohen also, obviously, because of his background, his abilities, and his performance in the committee on defense, I think represents someone who can build a relationship with the Hill that hopefully can establish what the President has been after for a long time, which is a bipartisan approach to foreign policy and to national security policy. Those are the reasons these people were selected.
Q: Speaking of the Hill, Jesse Helms was very complimentary about the choices already today. (Laughter.) Was he contacted in advance? Did you all check things out with him and say, would this sound right to you?
MR. BOWLES: We called Senator Helms right before we made the announcements and informed him of our choices.
Q: Who made that call?
MR. BOWLES: I don't know who made it.
MR. PANETTA: John Hilley -- I think the John Hilley shop basically called all of the committees and key chairmen and ranking members that had to be informed, but those calls began at 11:30 a.m. today.
Q: But there were no informal exchanges?
MR. PANETTA: There were some discussions with key senators during the course of this and there were a number of candidates that were being discussed.
Q: Including Helms?
MR. PANETTA: Not that I'm aware of, in terms of Helms. I did not get a call from Helms on that.
MR. BOWLES: I talked to Senator Helms several times in the last couple of days, but not about these appointments. We did reach out to various members of the Senate and were able to -- we did reach out to various members of the Senate. We did ask them their opinions, and we took those into account and made sure that the President was aware of them.
Q: What was the Vice President's role in all of this?
MR. BOWLES: The Vice President had a very significant role. He reviewed the information. He offered his opinion. He reached out to others to find their opinion and made sure that the President was well aware of what he felt the pluses and minuses of each one of the candidates were.
Q: Why wouldn't the U.N. ambassador, the new ambassador be considered part of this team?
Q: Mr. Bowles, could you be clear on the timetable? Are we looking for all these appointments by Christmas or January?
MR. MCCURRY: Hold on. Susan and then Helen.
Q: Could you be clear on the timetable? Are we looking for all the Cabinet and the White House appointments by Christmas or by the first of the year?
MR. BOWLES: Our due date, what we're working off, the calendar that we're working off, the time line that we have established is by the first of the year. I hope to beat that. I can't tell you I will, but that's what our goal is.
Q: Mr. Bowles, you were scheduled to meet with a group of House Republicans today. Did you have lunch with House Republicans today, and if so what was your message to them?
MR. BOWLES: I didn't have lunch with them. I met with a group of moderate Republicans today. I had a good meeting. We discussed bipartisan ways to work together to accomplish the goals that I think the American people outlined in the last election.
Q: Did you focus on the budget or --
MR. BOWLES: We talked about the budget a great deal. We talked about campaign finance reform. We talked about education. We talked about literacy. We talked about the environment.
Q: Mr. Bowles, there are reports that Mayor Rice of Seattle was in the White House today talking about a possible job in the administration. As a question of fact, not speculation, was he, indeed, here and did he talk to White House officials?
MR. BOWLES: I think Mayor Rice was here today and I believe he did have conversations with members of our group. Clearly, he would be -- he has the kind of credentials and the kind of experience and background that we would look for to fill any number of positions in the administration.
MR. MCCURRY: Okay. We're going to do one, two, three and we're done.
Q: Just the FDA, the Federal Drug Administration nomination -- is that included in your fast-track due date?
MR. BOWLES: It's not. We have a different process set up for FDA. Secretary Shalala has been conducting an outreach for people to consider and Leon and I expect to receive her list of first-round, broad-brush, I think, large group of people to look at in the not-to-distant future.
Q: Now that you mentioned and confirmed about Mayor Rice, could you tell me if Bill Daley also talked to Rubin? When was he here?
MR. BOWLES: Again, that's -- no, I can't.
MR. PANETTA: You're learning, Erskine. (Laughter.)
MR. BOWLES: Yeah, yeah. Thank you. (Laughter.)
MR. MCCURRY: Thank you. Okay, we'll do two more.
Q: Is the United Nations ambassadorship not part of the national security team?
MR. BOWLES: Yes, but the vacancy only became available last night.
Q: Yes, but so did the National Security Advisor vacancy only become --
MR. BOWLES: Yes, but we had known for a long period of time that Director Deutch did not -- was not planning to stay in that position. So we had been focused on it for a long period of time. We'll move on to that position very quickly.
MR. MCCURRY: Yes, last question.
Q: Gentlemen, the Secretary of State Warren Christopher invested many hours in flying to Damascus. How do you see the new Secretary of State doing the same job? Will the Middle East be as high on their agenda as it was in the previous administration?
MR. MCCURRY: Ambassador Albright, herself, has followed very closely the deliberations of the Middle East peace process. As you all know, we're at a very important moment in that process. The United States would, obviously, continue to play the facilitating role that it attempts to play with the parties and encourage them to bridge differences, particularly at a moment when there is a fruitful dialogue -- in the case of the Palestinian-Israeli discussions. And I am certain that Ambassador Albright will continue to play the kind of active role that Secretary Christopher offered to all of the tracks of the Middle East peace process.
END 3:20 P.M. EST
William J. Clinton, Press Briefing by Chief of Staff Leon Panetta and Chief of Staff-Designate Erskine Bowles Online by Gerhard Peters and John T. Woolley, The American Presidency Project https://www.presidency.ucsb.edu/node/270770