Press Briefing by Dana Perino
White House Conference Center Briefing Room
12:30 P.M. EDT
MS. PERINO: Just a couple of announcements, and then we'll go to questions. You heard the President this morning. He had a meeting with the House Republican Conference, in which they talked about a range of issues, and the President took some questions from the members. Two of the main things the President talked about was the Iraq war supplemental and the 2008 budget resolution that the House is currently debating. The President said he would veto a bill that restricts his commanders on the ground in Iraq, and a bill that doesn't fully fund our troops, and a bill that has got too much spending in it.
There is one new data point on this today that I want to make you aware of. As we've said, there are very real consequences for delaying action on the emergency spending bill. The President spent his urgent request for funds to support the troops on the ground in Iraq and Afghanistan 52 days ago. Our troops are in harm's way and engaged with the enemy, and they need the funds. Just this morning the Department of Defense notified Congress that in order to meet the force protection needs of the Marine Corps and the Army we are borrowing funds from other important Marine and Army procurement programs. That is taking funding intended for medium tactical vehicle replacement, Humvees and Humvee equipment, the tactical communications modernization program, and upgrades to other vehicles.
This reprogramming will then accelerate delivery of nearly 300 mine-resistant, ambush-protected vehicles that were included in the President's supplemental request and are needed by our troops on the ground. This reprogramming of funds is only necessary because Congress has failed to act in a timely manner on the President's emergency funding request. And so this, again, underscores the need to get this show on the road, get the bill to the President, he will veto it, and then we'll take it from there.
In addition today, the President talked to the members about the 2008 budget resolution. So a couple of comments on that. As you've heard the Democrats say that they campaigned on fiscal discipline, that they embrace the goal of a balanced budget, but unfortunately the substance of their bill does not match that rhetoric. Their path is so-called fiscal discipline, but it's paved with tax increases, spending increases, and then it ignores our biggest budgetary challenge, which is entitlement spending. Make no mistake, failing to extend tax relief is a tax increase, period.
And by contrast, the President's budget balances the budget without raising taxes. The Democrats' budget also increases day-to-day government spending by nearly $213 billion over five years. That is not offset. And the President talked with the House Republican members today about that as they continue debate throughout the rest of this week.
Q: Kyle Sampson testified today, as you know. He said, "I don't think the Attorney General's statement that he was not involved in any discussions of U.S. attorney removals was accurate. I remember discussing with him this process of asking certain U.S. attorneys to resign." What's the White House reaction to that? Do you feel like Attorney General Gonzales needs to get up to the Hill much more quickly to explain himself?
MS. PERINO: Well, he's said, as the President has said since we were in Mérida, Mexico, that, yes, the Attorney General has some work to do up on Capitol Hill; that he wasn't satisfied with incomplete or inconsistent information being provided to Capitol Hill. I personally did not get to see Kyle Sampson's testimony. I take your word for it that those are his words, but, yes, the Justice Department has work to do. I think that that is underway. The Attorney General has been not only traveling the country talking to the U.S. attorneys offices to let them know that they have his full faith and confidence, and to keep open lines of communication, and talk with them about how to better improve communication within the department.
Q: But if this right that the Attorney General actually was involved in the process, which is different from what he has said, would that change the President's support for him?
MS. PERINO: I think the key to that is "if," and I know that the Attorney General is going to be testifying in front of Congress, and I think it's best for me to allow the Attorney General to either explain further today, if they choose to, or to wait for his testimony.
Q: But would the President not want to get in touch with him before April 17th and say, what's the real story here?
MS. PERINO: I will find out if they're going to talk beforehand. Obviously it's kind of a long way away, a little bit more than three weeks.
Q: It's a little longer than you want it to hang there, right?
MS. PERINO: Correct, and so I think that we need to -- I'll need to find out if the President is going to talk -- be talking to him beforehand. I'm assuming that they probably would, whether it be specifically about this, or in the context of other meetings.
Q: Have they had any conversations since the one conversation the President said he's had with the Attorney General?
MS. PERINO: Not one that I was made aware of or that I could tell you about. I don't know if they've had any other communication, no.
Q: Can you sort of characterize -- because this really, this morning, brought into very sharp focus a dispute -- I mean, essentially, the Attorney General's former chief of staff is calling into direct question the crux of what the Attorney General has said about having never had any conversations. He's counting at least five conversations they've had. So how can the Attorney General, in your opinion, continue to be effective if, apparently, he stood up and said something that was categorically false?
MS. PERINO: I'm going to let the Justice Department and the Attorney General speak for himself. And, obviously, I understand how people can have different recollections, and I'm going to have to let the Attorney General speak for himself. And I do understand that --
Q: He doesn't seem to have any great urgency to do that. He's going to let this hang another three weeks.
MS. PERINO: I disagree. I think that the legislative calendar and his request for testimony is not made on the AG's timetable, it's made by -- it's at the request of members of Congress. I believe they set the date. Democrats run the Congress, they run the scheduling, so I think that wasn't the Attorney General's choice.
Q: So the delay between when the President asked him to get up to Capitol Hill and explain himself and April 17th is entirely the Hill's making?
MS. PERINO: No, I think that you can talk to the Hill -- you can talk to the Hill in a variety of ways. That doesn't necessarily mean a hearing. You can go up and have --
Q: And has the Attorney General chosen to do that?
MS. PERINO: I don't keep track of the Attorney General's schedule. I know that the department has been in contact with Capitol Hill. Obviously the Attorney General has had some travel. And our staff also has been up on Capitol Hill, letting people know that the Attorney General has the confidence of the President, and also reminding them that the President has said that he wants the Justice Department to be fully responsive to the Congress's requests. And that remains true today.
Q: Dana, does the President's support of Gonzales remain contingent in some way on how Gonzales performs during his testimony on Capitol Hill?
MS. PERINO: I don't know if I would put it that way -- it's that the President wants the Justice Department to be fully responsive. And I think that the Attorney General, when he goes up, will have that opportunity to talk to the American people and the --
Q: The President said that he's got work to do; others in the White House say he's got to go up there and adequately address these concerns. And so that leads to the question of whether or not the President is looking for results out of that testimony.
MS. PERINO: I would say that it's not just testimony. I think that there's a lot of things that you can do -- we're in regular contact with members of Congress all the time. And so there's -- testimony is one aspect of many different ways that you can talk to Congress and talk to your department and making sure that they understand where your head is.
Q: But if Congress remains dissatisfied, both Republicans and Democrats, with the competency and credibility of his Attorney General, are you saying today that the President will continue to stand behind him?
MS. PERINO: Yes, the President has confidence in the Attorney General. And if that changes for any of us that serve at the pleasure of the President, if we fail to continue to keep the President's pleasure, then we no longer work here.
Q: Let me switch to Iraq. You say that these bills will be vetoed, and then you want a clean bill out of Congress. The reality is the Democrats who run Congress have registered a very serious challenge to the President's war strategy. So where do -- where does the White House go from here in terms of negotiating with Congress in a way that can actually absorb the statement the Democrats have made about the desire to set a date certain to end the war? Or is there zero room for compromise in this --
MS. PERINO: I wouldn't say there's zero room. I think that obviously in our legislative system, as wonderful as it is, there is this give-and-take. The President has been clear that he does not want to tie the hands of our generals and he does think that having a date certain for when you would have to withdraw is a signal to the enemy for when they just need to lie in wait, regroup, and then come -- and sit ready to disrupt the sovereign government of Iraq.
If they want to compromise -- and I understand that the Speaker and the Majority Leader said that they do -- then we're willing to talk to them on ways that their bills can be changed in order to get to the President's desk so that it doesn't meet his veto.
Now, their proposal is well outside of the mainstream. This is not a moderate bill. It is contrary to the Baker-Hamilton report. It's contrary to the judgment of the President's military advisors, and it's contrary to the unanimous judgment of our intelligence community. So as I've said before, they've cobbled together a bare majority, using extra domestic spending for spinach and peanuts, and we've said it many times, tropical fish. They've used all of those tactics in order to get the bare majority. They're not going to be able to sustain the President's veto. And so I think that the best thing for everyone to do is if they really want to get this bill to the President's desk, let's do that, let's get it over with and get the veto done.
Q: But can the President support anything that approaches, whether it's -- if not a time certain, a desire, a kind of time line, can he abide by any kind of goal for the withdrawal of troops, even if it's non-binding?
MS. PERINO: I think I will decline to negotiate from here. I think that those are important conversations that need to happen between our members -- members of our administration, especially our Legislative Affairs staff, talking with members of Congress and the Hill about where they might be able to reach some sort of common ground.
Now, an arbitrary time line for withdrawal is what the President said that he would not accept. And so I don't believe there's --
Q: But there are other ways to get at that -- that's what you're suggesting? There's room for discussion on that?
MS. PERINO: I'm just not going to rule it out. I won't rule them out.
Q: I have two questions on the Middle East. Has the President been in touch with King Abdullah on his critical comments that we're wrong to be in Iraq?
MS. PERINO: Not that I'm -- no. The President only spoke to President Roh this morning, of South Korea. There have been no other calls that I know of.
Let me just remind you of something I said this morning, which is the United States and Saudi Arabia cooperate on a wide number of issues. It is not accurate to say that the United States is occupying Iraq. We are there under --
Q: It is not right to say we're occupying Iraq --
MS. PERINO: That's right.
Q: -- with 150,000 troops there?
MS. PERINO: Helen, we are there at the invitation of the sovereign government of Iraq that was democratically elected --
Q: Did we invade that country?
MS. PERINO: We were there under the U.N. Security Council resolution, and we are there now at the -- I think one of the things to point out -- and I think somebody brought up the Talabani comments this morning -- is that he was talking about the initial when we -- initially when we went in, of establishing a coalition provisional authority, rather than an Iraqi provisional authority. And we were there --
Q: Did we have a right to go in?
MS. PERINO: We were there under a U.N. mandate, yes.
Q: I have another question then. Does the U.S. take any responsibility for the reign of terror in Tal Afar yesterday between the Sunnis and the Shiites, where the Sunnis were killed, execution style, about 70 or so?
MS. PERINO: It was a horrible and atrocious day. I think that the people --
Q: Well, do we take any responsibility for that?
MS. PERINO: I think the people who committed those atrocities are the ones who are responsible. And I know that the United States forces, the coalition forces that are there, who are working alongside the Iraqi security forces, are working to bring security to the region.
This is exactly what we're talking about --
Q: We had nothing to do with their killing each other?
MS. PERINO: The people who commit atrocities are the ones who are responsible for committing atrocities.
Q: But, Dana, what about the apparent situation where the revenge killings were conducted, at least in part, by Iraqi police officers? We're talking about Iraqi police actually trained by the United States, by the coalition.
MS. PERINO: I've seen parts of those reports. I don't have a full report in terms of all that happened there. Clearly, it's very disturbing if there are police officers that people are supposed to be able to trust committing such atrocities. I did hear also a report -- and I hesitate to say it because I don't have all of the facts -- but that the Iraqi army went in and tried to help secure the situation. And that's what we need, is that the Iraqi forces there being able to take over their own security. And if there are problems with the police forces, and clearly this would be one of them -- that they need to go in there and purge those individuals from those positions of authority and the positions of trust that the Iraqi citizens should be able to have, and get them out of there, and allow for the peace to take over. And that's what General Petraeus is working on.
It's a serious situation. We've got a lot of work to do.
Q: What are you doing to help Britain get freedom for the 15 sailors in Iraq?
MS. PERINO: As I told you yesterday --
Q: Are you working at the U.N.? are there any activities at the U.N. to try to work on that?
MS. PERINO: I don't know if there's any activities at the United Nations. I do know that the President spoke to Tony Blair yesterday; we are fully supportive of Tony Blair and we want Iran to heed the calls of Tony Blair to release those soldiers immediately and unconditionally.
Q: And on the Saudi, are you seeking any -- were you surprised by the King's comments, and are you seeking any clarification?
MS. PERINO: I'm sure that we're in communication with the Saudis. I don't know if we're seeking clarification. In terms of his comments about Iraq, or the other?
Q: Yes, about occupation.
MS. PERINO: I don't have an update for -- I don't know if we're talking to them.
Q: Dana, back on the British-Iran issue, what are the thoughts of the White House officials about the fact that Iran is reneging on letting the female sailor go?
MS. PERINO: Again, the President backs Tony Blair, and Tony Blair has said that Iran should unconditionally and immediately release all of the prisoners -- all of the soldiers -- sorry, I didn't mean to call them prisoners.
Q: Is this indicative of Iran -- of Iranian policies or strategies, how they turn back on what they say?
MS. PERINO: You can be the judge of that. I think it's pretty clear.
Q: Dana, the President's meeting today with House Republicans, it was the first time, you said, that the full conference --
MS. PERINO: Had come down to the White House. He had met with the full conference up on Capitol Hill, but this is the first time they've been down to the White House.
Q: And afterwards he came out and made a 90-second statement, basically reiterating his veto threat.
MS. PERINO: We're counting?
Q: Well, it was short, very brief, as promised. But is the President trying to demonstrate that he is still carrying out the nation's business, even as this investigation is going on on Capitol Hill?
MS. PERINO: Well, the fact is that we are. And the President was there to talk about the two major issues that are happening on Capitol Hill right now, which is the debate on the Iraq war supplemental and fully funding our troops, and the debate on the 2008 budget resolution.
Q: But is it a distraction as the President tries to --
MS. PERINO: He's not distracted. There's a lot of people here in the administration to work on all of these different issues, and that includes the -- other issues that came up today are immigration, and education, health care, trade. And there's a lot of issues going on, and we're marching forward on all of them.
Q: But I've asked this before, I mean, on all those issues you just mentioned, is it getting stepped on, what the President wants to do now in his remaining time in office --
MS. PERINO: This administration, since September 11th, has been no short -- not short of any major issues happening all at one time. And so we're quite used to being able to handle multiple issues at the same time. We have to, it's our responsibility to the American people.
Q: The President's call to South Korea this morning, who initiated that call?
MS. PERINO: I don't know. Our President. Gordon helps from the side.
Q: Thank you. Did he make any headway in the talks, trade talks?
MS. PERINO: I don't have any specifics on that. They did talk about the free trade agreement, among other things.
Q: I was wondering if he had any further details --
MS. PERINO: No update.
Q: And also, on the immigration, can you give us a readout on what they talked about in the GOP conference this morning on immigration policy?
MS. PERINO: Part of the House Republican Conference was a chance for members and the President to have a give-and-take and for the members to ask questions. And so there was just additional conversation about immigration. And we've been working hard to make sure that we can get a bill passed by August, which is what the President called for.
Q: You said that the congressional war resolutions are inconsistent with the Iraq Study Group. Do you include the Senate plan, which, as I understand it, asks for a goal, but not a firm deadline, of removing them by March 2008? How is that different from the --
MS. PERINO: Well, the one thing I understand about the Senate bill is that it calls for troops to start withdrawing in 120 days, with the goal of being out March of 2008. And I think the President sees that as an arbitrary timetable.
Q: But that's meant to be a goal as opposed to a firm --
MS. PERINO: The goal is to get American troops home as soon as possible, but to do it in a way that is one where they can complete the mission.
Q: How is that different from what the Iraq Study Group said?
MS. PERINO: Well, the Iraq Study Group --
Q: They also said that they would like a goal of removing combat troops by March 2008.
MS. PERINO: Well, I think that the piece that I would point to in the Senate bill is where they say that troops need to start leaving within 120 days.
Q: Well, to get out by March 2008, you logistically have to, so that's not really all that --
MS. PERINO: Well, I think that that's just signaling -- I mean, that's like this is the bill for our defeat, this is the bill that mandates our failure. You start walking away in 120 days, and what does that do for the Iraqis that we promised we'll be there and we'll be able to help them secure their country?
Q: That may or may not be. That's not my question. My question is, how is that inconsistent with the Iraq Study Group?
MS. PERINO: Regarding the Senate bill? I'll take a look and get back to you.*(see footnote)
Q: Dana, could you reflect on the White House and the President's feelings before he attends, about the Tuskegee Airmen receiving the Congressional Gold Medal today? One hundred sixty black World War II aviators were not given their just deserves back then, and now they're being recognized. Many of them have passed away.
MS. PERINO: Of course, the President is really looking forward to going up to Capitol Hill today. He's going to be with -- this is one of those great things about our country, that we can fight about the Iraq war supplemental and the budget in the morning, then we can come together in the afternoon in a really special ceremony for the Tuskegee Airmen. And all of them deserve the special honor that they're getting today. And, of course, it's tragic that some did not live to get that honor.
Q: Does this come full circle for many in the service right now, fighting the war on terror? Because many say that those in the infantry that are fighting, it's a disproportionate number of minorities fighting, blacks and browns. What does this say to those that, years ago in World War II, blacks, African Americans were not recognized for their valiance and valor in the war, now that this is happening now during the time that they are fighting valiantly in Iraq?
MS. PERINO: I think the President could not have any stronger feelings about how grateful he is to each and every one of the soldiers that is fighting for us. They are amazing and that goes to their families, as well.
Let me go over here, to Olivier.
Q: Dana, right before your briefing, Nick Burns came out and said the United States is looking for clarification on that Saudi comment. You have a disagreement about that, a pretty firm one. I assume you don't agree with the Saudi Foreign Minister saying that Israel basically never wants peace in the region. You have two big breaks -- you said the United States and Saudi Arabia are cooperating on a number of issue. We have two major breaks on two major American priorities. How can you give Saudi-American relations a clean bill of health under those circumstances?
MS. PERINO: Well, I think that in any relationship, there is ebbs and flows. We have been close and cooperative with the Saudis, especially in regards to the war on terror, since 9/11. We appreciate those efforts. Clearly, in any type of relationship, especially between powers, when all of us as a world, we're under a lot of pressure -- we all want to see peace in the Middle East, and I certainly -- I include Israel in that camp. And we're going to continue to work hard. I will check on the -- what you said where Jonathan Burns of The New York Times is telling us what we're doing.
Q: No, no, Nick Burns.
MS. PERINO: Nick Burns came out.
Q: Nick Burns, yes.
MS. PERINO: Nick Burns came out. Oh, I thought you said, Jonathan Burns.
Q: Would it be fair, then, to call this one the --
MS. PERINO: Nick Burns would probably know. (Laughter.)
Q: So this would be one of ebbs, rather than one of the flows? Is that a fair characterization? (Laughter.)
MS. PERINO: Yes. Go ahead.
Q: Dana, going back to the 2008 budget resolution, when you were talking about an increase of taxes, which I guess -- are meaning it doesn't extend the Bush tax cuts --
MS. PERINO: Correct. And so it will end up being the largest tax increase in American history.
Q: If the GOP, when it was in control of Congress, couldn't extend them either, what could the President expect to get from a Democratically-controlled Congress?
MS. PERINO: Well, fair point. Obviously, our system of -- we would have liked to have seen a budget passed last year. That didn't happen. A continuing resolution had to be passed in February. And so we expect to see tax relief for the American people, because -- especially because it's not just tax relief for tax relief's sake, it's because it has results. We've had a strong and growing economy because of the President's tax cuts early on, and that's one of the things that the President wants to keep going throughout his administration. We've got 22 months left, or so.
Q: Can he get that from a Democratically-controlled Congress?
MS. PERINO: We're going to work on it.
Q: Thank you. Welcome again.
MS. PERINO: Thank you, Sarah.
Q: Yesterday and today, you said the President will negotiate with the Congress to get a military spending bill that he can sign. There are no indications the Democrat-controlled Congress is going to budge. So where is he going to get the billions he needs to fund the war?
MS. PERINO: Well, I think you have to take Majority Leader Reid and Speaker Pelosi at their word when they say they want to work with the President. And so we have an open door.
Q: When does the money issue become really critical? You said there -- already, the Pentagon is beginning to take steps. But when does this become something that's actually going to --
MS. PERINO: Secretary Gates -- Secretary Gates said last week, April 15th.
Q: But when does it begin to affect our troops in Iraq? I mean, April 15th, we start moving -- I mean, how -- when do we hit kind of a crisis situation on war funding as a result of this --
MS. PERINO: Secretary Gates was going to be testifying on Capitol Hill today. I know this was going to be a topic. If I can refer to that for now, and then we'll see if we can get you some more. I'll work with OMB on that.
Q: Congressman Murtha was very firm on saying that the testimony today was about the budget, the OA budget, not the supplemental.
MS. PERINO: I wonder if Secretary Gates will be able to get a word in. (Laughter.)
John -- let me go to John.
Q: Back on the Attorney General for a second. Is the White House going to encourage the Attorney General to try to bring some further clarity to this situation before the middle of April when it's -- you've got a long stretch of time in front of you where his -- you know his public position on his previous statements is not going to be --
MS. PERINO: I would think so, but I'm not -- I don't have a crystal ball to tell you exactly what the Justice Department is going to plan to do in terms of their PR schedule. If we get more on it, we'll let you know, but I'd refer you over to Justice Department. I agree three weeks is a long time.
Q: Dana, thank you. Two questions.
MS. PERINO: Quickly. Quick questions? (Laughter.)
MS. PERINO: Okay.
Q: More than half of page two of yesterday's Washington Post, under the headline, "Defender of the Second Amendment, if Not His Aide," reports how Senator Webb's aide Phillip Thompson was held for 28 hours in jail because he inadvertently walked into the Russell Senate Office Building with Senator Webb's loaded gun and two loaded magazines in his briefcase.
MS. PERINO: And your question is?
Q: And my question, you have no doubt in your mind, do you, Dana, that the President would immediately intervene on your behalf, rather than leave you in jail for 28 hours, in the event you inadvertently carried his gun and ammo in a briefcase into the Russell Building? (Laughter.)
MS. PERINO: I'm not so sure. I'm not so sure I have that much -- the President has that much confidence in me.
Q: Oh, you know he does.
MS. PERINO: I'm not going to -- I'm not going to comment. What's your next one? Hurry up. (Laughter.)
Q: Your flight is leaving. (Laughter.)
MS. PERINO: The doors are closing. (Laughter.)
Q: Vermont's Senator Leahy, in reference to the firing of eight U.S. attorneys said, "Not since the Saturday night massacre when President Nixon forced the firing of the Watergate prosecutor, Archibald Cox, have we witnessed anything of this magnitude." Question, does the President believe that Senator Leahy has somehow forgotten how Bill Clinton and Janet Reno fired 93 U.S. attorneys in one day?
MS. PERINO: I hope not. It was a long time ago, but there seems to be a lot going on on Capitol Hill where people, both testifying and asking questions, seem to not have good recollections.
Goyal, can we do quick?
Q: Yes, quick.
Q: Why is the quickness now, instead of for the front row here, Dana?
MS. PERINO: They're pretty quick.
Q: First of all, you are really representing our dear friend Tony, and the President well in this briefing room. My Question is, quick, that when the international community, especially the United States, got freedom for the millions of Afghans, they had faith and trust in the United States. Today, they have no faith in NATO and in Karzai government, and what they are saying is really, where their future is going. As far as my question is concerned, is this because of the money problem, or some kind of coordination of -- they're not united in the area as NATO is concerned. What's the problem?
MS. PERINO: I think, Goyal, that it just takes a while. And these things don't happen overnight, and it just takes sustained effort and patience and commitment.
Q: Thank you.
MS. PERINO: In the back.
Q: Thank you, Dana. President Bush called South Korean President Roh Moo-hyun this morning, and discussing on the FTA issues. Can you read out the conversation between President Bush and South Korean --
MS. PERINO: Well, what I know is that they spoke for a few minutes this morning. They spoke about the ongoing free trade agreement negotiations. We remain hopeful about getting that done, and then they also spoke about the next steps in implementation of the six-party talks, and then the February 13th agreement regarding North Korea.
Q: Thank you.
MS. PERINO: You're welcome. Thank you.
END 12:56 P.M. EDT
*Footnote: The Senate bill calls for an arbitrary retreat beginning in 120 days after passage of its legislation. This is not a goal, it is a rigid and arbitrary deadline. The bill states: "The President shall commence the phased redeployment of U.S. forces from Iraq not later than 120 days after the date of the enactment of this Act." Baker Hamilton explicitly rejected this approach, saying: "The point is not for the U.S. to set timetables or deadlines for withdrawal, an approach that we oppose."
That the Senate bill also sets as a "goal" the completion of this withdrawal by March 31, 2008, does not change the mandatory requirement that withdrawal begin by a date certain -- regardless of facts on the ground or the views of U.S. military commanders in the field.
Dana Perino, Press Briefing by Dana Perino Online by Gerhard Peters and John T. Woolley, The American Presidency Project https://www.presidency.ucsb.edu/node/273562