Press Briefing by Dana Perino
White House Conference Center Briefing Room
1:28 P.M. EDT
MS. PERINO: Hello. I'm going to start off today with a statement by the President that will be released after I provide it to you here, about the death of former Russian President Boris Yeltsin.
"Laura and I are deeply saddened by the death of former Russian President Boris Yeltsin. President Yeltsin was an historic figure who served his country during a time of momentous change. He played a key role as the Soviet Union dissolved, helped lay the foundation of freedom in Russia, and became the first democratically elected leader in that country's history. I appreciate the efforts that President Yeltsin made to build a strong relationship between Russia and the United States. We offer our sincerest condolences to the Yeltsin family and to the Russian people."
With that, I'll take your questions.
Q: Does the White House think that Congress should have any role in talking about the Iraq war, setting deadlines or anything like this -- that they should have any voice?
MS. PERINO: Well, I think the Congress does have a voice and does have input. And the President has said from the beginning that if they have ideas and they have concerns, that he wants to hear them.
One thing that concerned me today is I heard that Senator Reid said that the President is in denial about the war. And I think that any quick glance in the mirror would show him that he's in denial on several things -- that Senator Reid is.
First of all, he's in denial about the enemy that we face. This is a vicious and brutal enemy that wants to kill innocent men, women and children of Iraq, people who enjoy and love freedom, and that includes Americans. So it's not in our long-term national security interests in order to not deal with this enemy now.
Secondly, he's in denial about the conflict that we are in, how al Qaeda is inciting sectarian violence. He is in denial about the new Baghdad security plan and the new changes that we've implemented in al Anbar province. He's also in denial that a surrender date he thinks is a good idea. It is not a good idea. It is defeat. It is a death sentence for the millions of Iraqis who voted for a constitution, who voted for a government, who voted for a free and democratic society.
We all want the Iraqis to move faster, to do more and to do it faster, in terms of their political reconciliations. But they're just not ready to do it yet. And Americans are not the type that walk away in times of hardship. To leave people in Iraq flailing and defenseless against an enemy who is determined to kill them. And withdrawal is like crying "uncle," it's giving up. And I can assure you they are diluting themselves if they think that offering a surrender date is in the long-term strategic interests of this country. It is not.
And that is why the President has asked them to reconcile their differences and to send him a bill. The role that Congress plays is one in which to send legislation to the President. He has been very clear from the beginning: He will not sign a bill that includes a surrender date or micromanages the generals in this war. He said that again this morning. The Democrats in Congress obviously don't have the votes to override the President's veto, and so it is incumbent upon them to work things out, to reconcile the House and the Senate bills, and to send the President a bill. Now if it's one that he can sign, that was what we would prefer. But if it's one that he has to veto, he will do that.
Q: Dana, on March 14th, when the President first talked about Alberto Gonzales, he said, mistakes were made and he will send the Attorney General to Capitol Hill to correct those mistakes. Does the President feel like that's what the Attorney General did last week?
MS. PERINO: You heard from the President this morning, and he said that the Attorney General went to Congress after providing thousands of pages of documents, and talking to them individually, but went to Congress and answered hours of testimony, and he answered as honestly as he could. And so, yes, the President thinks he did the work that he needed to do.
Q: But here's what I don't understand about that, because I thought what the President's point was, Alberto Gonzales had to be able to sort of make it right with Congress; to regain the faith and the trust on the Hill. And if you take a look at Republican senators -- so it's not politics as usual -- Republican senators, he didn't do that.
MS. PERINO: I think there is no doubt that there are some people who don't support the Attorney General. But you heard the President today; he does. And I think what the President was talking about on March 14th, and any other time that he said that the Attorney General would go to Capitol Hill, is that he would answer the questions honestly and answer to the best of his ability in terms of what he could recall.
Q: He did answer to the best of his ability, I suppose, but that wasn't good enough not just for one or two Republicans -- with the exception of maybe one, one-and-a-half, just about every Republican on the Judiciary Committee. So the question becomes, is the President looking out of touch with his stance of unwavering support behind the Attorney General?
MS. PERINO: We have strong, good relationships with our allies on Capitol Hill. And when you have relationships like that, you can have the opportunity to respectfully disagree with them. And I think that what the Attorney General did is answer to the best of his ability -- and, frankly, just to walk through this one more time, we're talking about eight U.S. attorneys who serve at the pleasure of the President; the Department of Justice has the capability and the ability, under law, to be able to replace those U.S. attorneys. And there's been no credible evidence that there was anything that was done improperly or any sense of wrongdoing.
And so when the Attorney General went up and answered hours' worth of questions from the Congress, he did what he could in order to answer honestly and to the best of his ability. And that's what the President asked him to do.
Q: One more follow on this. I understand that point you're making about what was proper and improper, but the fact of the matter is, that after the testimony you could call all over this town -- I'm not just talking about the Jon Stewart's of the world, the late night comics -- I'm talking about Republican senators and congressmen and women who were saying, you know what, the Attorney General has no credibility, he did a lousy job on Capitol Hill yesterday. And now the President seems to be the only one saying, you know what, he's doing a fantastic job.
MS. PERINO: Look, I understand that there are people who disagree, who are not supportive of the Attorney General. The President is. He appreciates the work that he's done to combat terrorism and to protect children from predators and to stamp out corruption in government. And the President stands by him.
Q: Dana, to follow on that, you just used a phrase that the President did today, "he answered as honestly as he could." Isn't honesty sort of black and white?
MS. PERINO: I think what I mean by that is that I know that there was frustration because there were several types of questions that the Attorney General could not answer with a "yes" or a "no" because he didn't recall. And I think that's what the President meant, and that's what I mean now.
Q: There were about 64 variations, according to some accounts in the media, 64 variations of "I don't recall," "I don't remember. So what about that testimony in which he said "I don't recall," some variation, 64 times, that made the President say he now has increased confidence in the Attorney General?
MS. PERINO: Look, Ed, I think that you had testimony that lasted I don't know how many hours, over seven hours, and so many of those questions were repeated over and over. And the Attorney General, who is an honorable and honest man answered truthfully. And I think that's all that we can ask of any public servant or any of us in this room.
Q: But did the President actually see the testimony?
MS. PERINO: He got regular updates from us while we were on the road -- we were on the road that day, on the way to Ohio.
Q: So how can he say he has increased confidence if he got updates from other people? So he didn't actually see the testimony, himself, because --
MS. PERINO: He got updates from us, and I think he saw some news coverage of it later that day.
Q: But as Jim noted, I mean, Arlen Specter yesterday said that it was "very, very damaging to his own credibility." So what did the President see -- well, he didn't see the testimony, but what did he hear that he --
MS. PERINO: What the President knows is that the Attorney General answered honestly, truthfully and was as responsive to Congress as he could possibly be during hours of testimony and in turning over all the documents, and then making people that work for him available to the Congress in order to answer their questions.
Q: What's the status of whether Karl Rove and other White House aides -- when you talk about cooperating with Congress, what's the status of Karl Rove and other White House aides --
MS. PERINO: You know, I think the ball is still in the Democrats' court; they haven't decided whether or not to take us up on our offer.
Q: Back on Iraq. The President said this morning he's willing to work with Congress, but Senator Reid said that when he met with the President last week, the President just repeated some scripted talking points. Is that, in fact, true?
MS. PERINO: I think that Senator Reid is confusing scripted talking points with principled stand. And, you know, another thing that I would point out is I just saw Senator Reid's press conference in which he said, one of the things that has to happen is there needs to be a regional conference. Well, we have one of those happening next week, in Sharm el-Sheikh Egypt, and Secretary Rice is going to attend.
He shouldn't be able -- Senator Reid should not be allowed to get away with his own scripted talking points, that is sometimes a little bit hard to keep track of because you can't understand what his positions are. But this President has had a very principled stand and I don't think anyone could argue with that.
Q: Can you talk about -- you talked about the fact that you won't leave the Iraqis "flailing and defenseless," as you say. And, yet, the President repeatedly says, and everybody from the administration, that this is not an open-ended commitment. So at some point are you willing to leave them? If they don't come along and the Iraqi government doesn't do what you want it to do, what's required -- are you willing to leave them at that point?
MS. PERINO: I think that the President is confident that Prime Minister Maliki understands that the Iraqi people have limited patience, as well, and they are desperate for the security and to get their lives back to what they were before. I think that he believes that while they don't have the capacity yet in order to perform the political reconciliations that need to be done, that they are on their way to be able to doing so.
And the other thing that Senator Reid has said repeatedly over the last few weeks is that there is no military solution alone. While that is true, there is also no political solution if you don't get the security that you need, and that's what the new Baghdad security plan is there to do, is to help protect the people, calm the violence down and allow the parliament there in Iraq to do its work.
Q: But back on the open-ended commitment -- I mean, you're trying to clearly pressure the Iraqi government to meet some sort of benchmark, you don't think they're going fast enough, you'd like them to go faster. If they don't go fast enough, then can you see pulling out?
MS. PERINO: Look, I think that you're asking me to answer a hypothetical question. And what I could tell you is that --
Q: But you're the one who's saying that the Democrats are saying they would leave them defenseless and flailing.
MS. PERINO: That's what I'm saying. And what the President is saying is let's let this Baghdad security plan have a chance to work. As General Petraeus reported today, he only has I think about 60 percent of the additional troops that he's asked for. And he also has, I think -- what's it, two-and-a-half months that the plan has been in place. And he has said it's going to take several months, probably fall or late fall before we know if this plan is going to be able to succeed in doing all that we need it to do.
So I think it's a little bit premature -- and the President has confidence that Prime Minister Maliki, and that the Iraqi troops who are growing in number, and the police officers who are growing in number, in terms of the training, that they will be able to succeed.
Q: Can you describe what success will look like at this point?
MS. PERINO: That has not changed for the President. He believes that success is an Iraq that can govern, sustain and defend itself, and be an ally in the war on terror, and be a democratic country in the heart of the Middle East.
Q: In an effort to get this legislation the President wants, do you believe, does the President believe the tone is appropriate here, sharp words from this podium, sharp words from Senator Reid? Can that help get anything done?
MS. PERINO: Look, far be it from us to let us be "Whac-a-Mole," and get whacked about the head and not respond. We're going to respond, because it's important for the American people to understand that where we are coming from -- and I don't think that sharp words should be mistaken for -- should not be mistaken for what it really is. We're not questioning someone's patriotism, we are trying to point out a debate on the merits. And I think that if sometimes it takes harsher language to do that, then we'll do so.
Q: Dana, back on the Attorney General. Senator Specter was asked yesterday whether he thought it was good or bad for the Attorney General to stay on in the Justice Department, for the Justice Department. And he said, "No doubt it is bad for the department, it's harmful. There's been a very substantial decrease in morale there."
MS. PERINO: I think that there's no doubt that there was a period of unease at the Justice Department, and I think that the Attorney General tried to address that. I think he met with over 70 U.S. attorneys offices as he traveled around the country, and they gathered and they met over the course of two or three weeks. That was essential work to be done, because I think that there needed to be open lines of communication between main Justice and the U.S. attorneys' offices.
I think that now that the hearing is behind us and the Attorney General answered their questions and we have all of the documents turned over, I think that -- hopefully things are calming down. I think if you are on the press release distribution list from Department of Justice, you will see that they are not stopping at all, in terms of succeeding in their prosecutions.
Q: It doesn't seem like it's stopping as far as the other side, either, with a growing number of Republicans speaking out, saying it's bad for him to stay on. Would the President be surprised to get an offer of resignation from Attorney General Gonzales?
MS. PERINO: I think that what the President and the Attorney General have talked about is that the President has confidence in him. He thanked him for the work that he did leading up to the hearing. He answered honorably, he answered truthfully, and that's all we can expect from somebody. He has actually done a very good job -- anyone who looks at the record of the Department of Justice could only come to that conclusion.
Q: Last thing. The President, as of now, expects Attorney General Gonzales to stay on to the end of his term?
MS. PERINO: The President hopes so.
Q: Can the President look past his long personal friendship with Alberto Gonzales, to really look at this as objectively --
MS. PERINO: Yes, I think that he can. I think that you have to. Obviously, they've been long-time friends, but they've also been -- they've worked together, they've accomplished a lot together, and the President appreciates that work.
Go ahead, Les.
Q: Thank you, Dana. Another question. The President has more than once invited up to two dozen talk radio hosts to broadcast from the White House. But now, while three dozen are broadcasting on Capitol Hill for three days on illegal immigration, we have received no such presidential invitation or even word of welcome. And my question, does the President wish we would all go home?
MS. PERINO: I think you're talking about apples and oranges, Les.
Q: If the President really feels as you contend he does, when will he visit us on Capitol Hill or invite us to the White House?
MS. PERINO: I didn't know there had been an invitation. But we do talk show radio day every once in a while. We'll keep you in mind for the next one.
Q: There are three dozen up there, and they'd love to have --
MS. PERINO: Been arranged by --
Q: Could you come?
MS. PERINO: I think I'm busy. (Laughter.)
John, go ahead.
Q: Thank you, Dana. Turning back to the Department of Justice, Congressman Tom Davis, and the Republican members of the House Government Operations Committee, recently wrote the Attorney General asking why former National Security Council advisor Sandy Berger had not been administered a polygraph test about what he took from the National Archives and looked at there -- something Mr. Berger agreed to in his plea bargain agreement two years ago. The Department of Justice wrote back a terse letter, said there was no need to give him a polygraph test. Mr. Davis has publicly complained about his treatment.
My question is, the last time I checked, the Attorney General works for the President, reports to him. Is the President aware of this? And would he ask his Attorney General to make this test possible?
MS. PERINO: I don't know if the President is aware of it. I do know that it would be inappropriate for the President to get himself involved into an investigation.
Q: So he has no opinion -- you have no opinion on --
MS. PERINO: I have not talked to the President about it, John.
Q: All right. Will you?
MS. PERINO: I'll see if I can do that.
Q: Thank you. Dana, what can you tell us about Prime Minister Maliki not wanting to have the (inaudible) around Baghdad, he says it's not necessary. But I thought that was supposed to be, you know, for security.
MS. PERINO: I think that the way to look at this is that our commanders on the ground have a lot of flexibility, and they work with the Iraqis to try to figure out the best way to protect the men, women and children of Iraq. And these walls were meant as a temporary measure in order to help prevent suicide bombers and kidnappers and others who would perpetrate sectarian violence, from killing innocent people.
We'll continue to work with the Iraqis. And I think the most important thing to remember is that the work that we are doing on the ground there, it is slow, it is focused, it is persistent. They clear an area, they hold it, they train more Iraqis, both the military and the police, and then they move forward in order to rebuild and help these people rebuild their lives. So we'll continue to work with the Iraqis on it.
Q: Dana, can I follow on that for a second? I think when you were talking with Martha, or her answering her questions, you said that the President and the administration is interested in getting -- so the Iraqi people can get their lives back to where they were before.
MS. PERINO: Well, obviously that's -- I should -- let me -- are you giving me a chance to expand, revise and extend my remarks? Obviously, they want to be in a time -- in a place where they can feel safe, and I don't believe that, at least most of the population, felt safe under Saddam Hussein. Everybody wants, and the President believes an inherent desire in every person is the freedom to live their lives the way that they would like to live them. That's what I meant.
Q: Between them, the Attorney General and Kyle Sampson said, "I don't recall" over 200 times. Is there concern that at the top of the Justice Department, there's seems to be a massive lack of memory?
MS. PERINO: Victoria, I think that that is an outrageous comment. The Attorney General and Kyle Sampson are two of the most honorable people I know. And they were asked multiple questions in various different ways on the same topics in which they did not have full memory. Now what would have been dishonorable is if they had made it up. And they didn't. They were honest.
Q: But, nevertheless, they didn't remember.
MS. PERINO: It's just as if you don't remember something. You shouldn't make it up just to satisfy somebody's curiosity about something. That would be wrong.
Q: But there is not concern that there are people running the Department --
MS. PERINO: Absolutely not. Absolutely not.
April, go ahead.
Q: Dana, how far -- on Gonzales, how far does friendship and loyalty go when you have people in your own party now calling for you to step down?
MS. PERINO: I'm not going to answer that. You know, Kelly answered [sic] a similar question. And while the President takes very seriously long-time friendships, he takes very seriously, as well, capabilities. And anyone who takes an objective look at the record of the Department of Justice will see that they've done -- he's done a remarkable job at the helm.
Q: But is the President to a point where friendship is overriding politics, policy, and what some people are calling common sense?
MS. PERINO: No, I don't believe so. I think that the Attorney General is fulfilling the agenda that the -- the prosecutorial agenda that the President wants to follow. You know, today, he's -- the Attorney General and the FTC Chairman, Deborah Majoras, are holding a press conference talking about identity theft, which is one of the things that he asked them to do. They are going about the business of the American people, and that's what the President expects.
Q: And also on Nigeria, last week he came out saying some things, the White House is questioning the elections process in Nigeria. What is the White House saying now about the elections?
MS. PERINO: We are concerned and troubled about reports about irregularities in the Nigerian elections. We look forward to hearing from the election observers. And the United States urges all parties to resolve their concerns through peaceful means. Obviously, there is a lot of tension there, and we hope that people can remain calm, and if they're going to protest, to do so peacefully.
Q: So is the President not going to talk to Obasanjo any time soon?
MS. PERINO: I think what we need first, April, is to hear from the election observers before we can make any other moves.
Q: Dana, can I ask you, there's been a lot of chatter over the last couple days about this confrontation that Karl Rove allegedly had with a couple of celebrities about global warming, climate change. What was Karl Rove's reaction to being confronted at the dinner in this way?
MS. PERINO: I think Karl Rove just wanted to have some fun on Saturday night. And I think he wasn't the only one.
I think that it's unfortunate that people who have an impassioned view about a topic don't take the time and afford the President the same respect that they are asking for. The President's record on climate change is very strong. I do not understand why they can't take "yes" for an answer. The President has acknowledged, since the beginning of his term, that climate change is real. He has a different approach of how to help solve the problems, but that doesn't mean he hasn't acted.
We have provided billions of dollars, in terms of resources, to develop the new technologies that are not only going to help solve that problem, but will also help lift people out of poverty from around the world because they need the clean energy that everyone else needs in order to help their economies grow.
Q: But it was not until this last State of the Union that he mentioned climate change, right, so --
MS. PERINO: Absolutely not.
Q: He did not mention it directly.
MS. PERINO: In the State of the Union?
Q: In the State of the Union. I thought this was the last --
MS. PERINO: Well, in the State of the Union, but that doesn't mean that people weren't actively working on things. I could point you back to the 2003 State of the Union, in which he announced the FutureGen project, which is a zero-emissions coal-fired power plant, which is currently underway, in terms of its development, and it's a 10-year plan. And what we would hope is that once we get that technology, we will be able to transfer it to developing countries that are going to use coal, like Mexico and South Africa and China, which, by the way, is building one power plant a week that uses coal.
So we have big climate change challenges ahead of us, and I just wish that they would channel some of that Hollywood energy into something constructive, rather than baseless finger pointing.
Q: Did Rove leave early because he was angry because of this?
MS. PERINO: Rove left to get in the motorcade to go home. (Laughter.) That's what we all have to do if we're in the motorcade. I got to stay behind.
Q: Dana, the President had a conversation with Vladimir Putin today, and a brief statement said that they talked about missile defense, Kosovo, and Secretary Gates. Can you elaborate at least on the missile defense part of that conversation?
MS. PERINO: I can't, because I don't know any additional -- additional points. Obviously, Secretary Gates is there talking with the Russians about that; I refer you to his comments over there. And I would note that when the President and President Putin spoke this morning, the news about Boris Yeltsin's death had not yet been revealed, and so that's why they didn't speak about it.
Q: First of all, it was a great White House Correspondent dinner, and it was really wonderful to see that everybody was in the mood of remembering the victims of Virginia Tech.
MS. PERINO: Okay. What's your question?
Q: And my question is that yesterday there was a rally against the immigrants at the White House, anti-immigrants rally, and also in the fall several rallies were held, pro-immigrants. My question is that now 62 percent of Americans, what they're saying is that illegals who are here, they should be given chance and let them pay taxes. But at the same time, 68 percent are saying that no more illegals --
MS. PERINO: Well, Goyal, all right, what I would say is that the President, as we've said before, doesn't make decisions based on polls. What we are doing right now is we are working with Congress in order to develop a comprehensive immigration reform bill that will not allow for amnesty, but try to address that problem, as well as create a temporary worker program.
Q: What are (inaudible) -- what is the mood of the Democratic Congress now, which President has been always supporting immigration bill, how will he --
MS. PERINO: We're confident we'll be able to get a bill this year. There's going to be a vote at the end of the month on the Senate floor.
Q: Thank you. How active is this White House in participating in debates about changing mental health laws --
MS. PERINO: I don't know if you saw it, but in Saturday's radio address, the President announced that Secretaries Leavitt, Spellings and the Attorney General are going to be working on a review of all the aspects regarding policy, mental health policy, and the nexus with guns.
Q: But what about meetings up on Capitol Hill? Any activity up there from the White House, itself?
MS. PERINO: I'm sure we'll be engaged with Capitol Hill. I don't know of anything specific.
Q: Thank you again, Dana. In the French elections, just before the balloting, Socialist candidate Madame S gol ne Royal said she would not shake the hand of President Bush without bringing up grievances to this country. In her final pre-election rally, she said, "I will not genuflect to George W. Bush." What is the administration's reaction about this statement from a potential --
MS. PERINO: I'm going to decline to answer. I haven't heard -- I haven't seen her comments, and I'll see if I can get back to you.
Q: Thank you.
MS. PERINO: Okay, thank you.
END 1:52 P.M. EDT
George W. Bush, Press Briefing by Dana Perino Online by Gerhard Peters and John T. Woolley, The American Presidency Project https://www.presidency.ucsb.edu/node/274604