Press Briefing by Dana Perino
White House Conference Center Briefing Room
12:27 P.M. EDT
MS. PERINO: Hello, good afternoon. A few announcements, and then we'll go to questions -- for Friday. The Iraq Neighbors Conference just concluded in Egypt, and I'd like to echo a few of the things that Secretary Rice discussed in her press conference. These things are something that the President has talked about since he launched the new strategy on January 10th, and that is the importance of not only a political, economic and military surge, but a diplomatic surge, as well.
The first is that the Iraqi government spoke to its own responsibilities to foster national reconciliation and to create an Iraq for all Iraqis. Second, the neighbors spoke to their desire to foster an environment in which that national reconciliation can take place, particularly taking responsibilities concerning borders and concerning energy, and noting that it is, of course, in their interest that Iraq be stable and secure.
Third, the international community took its place alongside Iraq and its neighbors to commit, as it did yesterday through the International Compact, to a set of obligations as Iraqis move forward on their obligations, but also to continue the process to foster international support for the democratically elected government and Prime Minister Maliki.
And I'd also like to point out what Iraq Foreign Minister Zebari said in this morning's Washington Post. These are his words: Those calling for withdrawal may think it is the least painful option, but its benefits would be short-lived. The fate of the region and the world is linked with ours. Leaving a broken Iraq in the Middle East would offer international terrorism a haven and ensure a legacy of chaos for future generations. Furthermore, the sacrifices of all the young men and women who stood up here would have been in vain. Iraqis, for all of our determination and courage, cannot succeed alone.
Turning to everyone's much anticipated visit of the Queen. On Monday, President George W. Bush and Mrs. Laura Bush are honored to host Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II of Great Britain, and His Royal Highness The Prince Philip, Duke of Edinburgh, on Monday, May 7th, 2007.
What's with the phones today? Everyone has got their phones on?
The visit is an occasion to celebrate these enduring bonds between these countries. And you'll recall, the President and Mrs. Bush visited England in November of 2003. They welcome a chance to return that hospitality, which, as the Queen noted at the time, has been extended to no fewer than seven of the President's predecessors.
And this is Her Majesty's first visit to the United States in 16 years. For the visit, Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II of Great Britain, and her husband will stay at the President's Guest House, which is, as you know, called the Blair House.
The arrival ceremony is May 7, 2007 -- that's this coming Monday -- on the South Lawn of the White House. We'll have approximately 7,000 guests that will attend the arrival ceremony, including the American and British delegations, British Embassy staff, state dinner guests, members of Congress, Cabinet members, White House staff and their guests, State Department staff, and students.
And just a note on the state dinner. It will take place in the State Dining Room on the State Floor of the White House, following a reception in the East Room on the State Floor. One hundred thirty-four guests will be seated in the State Dining Room, including a diverse representation of guests from around the country. And a member of the Bush administration will serve as the table host at each of the 13 tables. The attire for the state dinner is white tie, and this is the first white-tie event that the President and Mrs. Bush have hosted.
Q: I didn't get my invitation.
Q: It's in the mail. (Laughter.)
MS. PERINO: It's in the mail.
And I just have one more thing I'd like to mention. I'd like to just clear up something. And you might find it a little strange, but I feel compelled to do it because I attended the speech on Wednesday, when the President addressed the American General Contractors Association. And in the Q&A the President was asked a question in which he talked about how some people choose to listen to politicians in Washington, and others choose to listen to commanders on the ground.
It's been reported that the President said, "I'm 'the' commander guy." He did not. What I recalled was that he said "I'm 'a' commander guy," meaning that he's one of the people that listens to the commanders on the groung. But I saw in our transcript that our stenographers put out that we wrote 'the' commander guy, and then it's been reported that way in many places. So I asked the stenographers to take another listen last night; they did and they said that I was right -- which I love to hear. (Laughter.) He did say 'a' commander guy.
Q: Does he consider himself over the other commanders?
MS. PERINO: He is the Commander-in-Chief, but the context of what the President was saying is that when it comes to making decisions about Iraq or war policy, that the President listens to commanders on the ground, not politicians in Washington. And we will send out a correction of that transcript so that the record is clear. And I'm sure none of you will be tempted to misuse it in the future.
Q: Is there any disappointment here at the White House that there was a missed opportunity for the Iranian Foreign Minister and Secretary Rice to meet?
MS. PERINO: I saw Secretary Rice's press conference, and I didn't see her think of it that way. This was a -- the meeting that the Secretary went to was a meeting about Iraq. It was for all the neighbors around -- I think it was 60 countries that participated -- to talk about Iraq. Secretary Rice said she was prepared, as she was to talk to the Foreign Minister of Syria, at the direction of the President, but that opportunity didn't happen. But that's okay. Ambassador Crocker did have a moment to speak with his counterpart.
So I think overall for the meeting that took place in Sharm el Sheikh, we're very satisfied. But there's follow-up to do, and as you know, the President has asked Vice President Cheney to travel to the region and he leaves on Tuesday.
Q: So the President doesn't feel that there might have been, or that there should have been the effort on Secretary Rice's part to take the initiative and make something happen? Was it on the Iranian side to make this meeting happen if it were going to?
MS. PERINO: There was never on the -- a meeting with the Iranians was never on the agenda. What we had said is that if they had a chance to see each other and talk, that that would have been appropriate. And as directed by the President, the Secretary did meet with her Syrian counterpart yesterday. The Iranians know what they need to do in the region.
And I think that the communique that has just been released, that they agreed to a set of 19 issues. If you have a chance to read through that, I think that would be a good thing. The Iranians would do well to read it, as well. And I think that everyone can agree that a stable Iraq that can govern, sustain and defend itself is not only good for Iraqis, but for the region, and especially for the long-term interests of this country.
Q: If I could just ask one more question on that. So the President directed her to meet with her Syrian counterpart, but did not give the same sort of direction concerning -- to Iran. Can you say why?
MS. PERINO: There was a specific request by the Iraqis for Secretary Rice to try to talk with Syria and Iran. The Secretary called back to the President. I think that the President said, if you have this opportunity, these are the things that you should talk about. That's what Secretary Rice did, in terms of foreign fighters coming into Iraq from those borders. If the opportunity would have presented itself to meet with the Iranians, as well, I think that the Secretary would have been pleased to talk with them. It didn't. But that doesn't mean that we didn't have any contact with them, because, as I said, Ambassador Crocker met with his counterpart. He said it was brief, but they did have a conversation.
Q: Does this new surge in diplomacy mean an end to unilateralism?
MS. PERINO: I don't know who -- who are you accusing of being unilateralist?
Q: The President -- our foreign policy has been unilateral from the beginning of this war.
MS. PERINO: No, Helen, in fact, I would point you back to -- in the Baker-Hamilton report they suggested a neighbors conference. It was one of the things the President talked about when he announced a surge on January 10th. And we're pleased that the first meeting took place in March, and now the second meeting has happened. And what has to happen now is -- it's just as important that there be good follow-through, and that's why the Vice President is going to the region next week.
MS. PERINO: Why is he going to the region next week?
Q: Of all people.
MS. PERINO: Of all people. Look, it's important for us to continue to talk with our friends and allies in the region. There are many challenges --
Q: Who is he going to talk to?
MS. PERINO: We have the list of all the countries that he's going to; I don't have it in front of me. But we obviously appreciate very much the support that Iraq was shown by the neighbors in the region. It's important that Vice President Cheney follow up on that. We have challenges in the region, and it's important that everyone be working together in order to help solve them. And it's also important that we continue to consistently strengthen, work to strengthen our bilateral relationships in the region, as well.
Q: What does the President think of Senator Clinton's attempt to impose a sunset on the war resolution?
MS. PERINO: Well, we were slightly confused and disappointed when yesterday -- it was only a few hours after Josh Bolten had met with the Republican and Democratic leadership that the congressional leaders had designated to talk about the Iraq war supplemental bill in a spirit of bipartisanship and moving forward in order to get the troops what they need.
Look, I think that there's going to be many attempts to try to put a surrender date on the calendar. The President is not going to accept one. And I think that a little bit of last night, what you saw was a little bit of presidential politics. And we might see more of it, but the President has a principled stand that he's not going to change.
Q: Has he actually expressed his views about this to you?
MS. PERINO: No, I have not seen the President today. But I talked to some folks yesterday afternoon.
Q: How difficult is it going to be to replace J.D. Crouch?
MS. PERINO: Well, we'd all like to think of ourselves as irreplaceable. But obviously J.D. Crouch has been a fantastic member of this administration. He's a fine public servant. He's a very good colleague to work with, as well. I will tell you, from personal experience, this is a gentleman who gets here before dawn and leaves well after dark. And he always would find it in his day, once in a while, to let you know that he either noticed something that you did well, or point out something that he could help you with, so in that regard, a very good colleague. The President will miss him greatly.
But we are not short on people in the administration who can fill positions like that, and Steve Hadley is going to work to do that.
Q: But now you're also looking for a replacement for Meghan O'Sullivan, you're looking for a war czar. How is this going to --
MS. PERINO: I don't think it's unusual. I mean, I've not been in other administrations, but I don't think it's unusual at this point in a second term in an administration that some people who have served for many years have decided to move on. And that happens in the corporate world, as well --
Q: But in the middle of a war, at a critical time, when General Petraeus is trying to implement this new strategy --
MS. PERINO: I'm confident we'll be able to find people to fill those positions and that they will serve very well.
Q: Do you expect it to be fairly quickly, then, since J.D. Crouch has made this known for months that he --
MS. PERINO: I'm not going to put a timetable on it, how's that?
Q: Dana, a Newsweek article reports that a couple of months ago Karl Rove was involved in some meetings where Justice Department officials were preparing for testimony. Did the meeting happen? Was Mr. Rove there? And was it appropriate for him to be there?
MS. PERINO: I'm so confused by this, because Kyle -- in the first batch of documents that went out on March 13th, Kyle Sampson's documents included a meeting -- an announcement about a meeting that happened early in March. I'm not going to tell you who the participants are of internal White House meetings, but I will tell you, it is not at all unusual, nor is it inappropriate, for people at the White House to meet with members of the administration before they are going up to testify in front of Congress. And at the urging of the White House -- we were asking the Justice Department to be fully responsive to the Congress so that we could help get them the answers that they need.
Q: You don't think it creates an appearance of everybody getting their story straight?
MS. PERINO: What I think is that -- what it appears is that anytime Karl Rove's name is mentioned is that there's some sort of nefarious action. I will tell you that, having worked on that issue intimately, and the whole time we were in Latin America, we were urging the Justice Department to be responsive to the Congress. That is not unusual, and we would have done that with any agency.
Q: Yes, but there was a sense at the time that the Justice Department, I believe from the podium it was suggested often that the Justice Department needs to get its -- all of its story in line, straight, and get it in, settled up to the Hill, but that it was the Justice Department's problem to solve, which would be different than having meetings at the White House to talk about any kind of strategy about how you're going to testify.
MS. PERINO: Urging members of the administration to make sure that they're responsive to members of Congress is not at all inappropriate. In fact, I think we would be remiss if we hadn't done so.
Q: That's not what I'm saying. I'm saying that there were meetings at the White House about coordinating a strategy for how to deal with it. That's not exactly the kind of --
MS. PERINO: Look, I was at that meeting, and I will tell you that the way you're describing it, in terms of coordinating some sort of message, was not the case. It was encouraging them to make sure that all the information got out quickly so that the members of Congress could have what they needed so that we could move on from that story.
Q: You were there?
MS. PERINO: I was there.
Q: Was Karl there?
MS. PERINO: I'm not going to comment on anybody else; I will speak for myself.
Q: Dana, were you able to find out if the President watched the Republican debate last evening and what he thought of it?
MS. PERINO: He did not.
Q: He did not?
MS. PERINO: He did not.
Peter, you had one?
Q: Yes, why didn't he watch it? (Laughter.)
MS. PERINO: Why didn't he watch it? I don't know what else he was doing. I didn't ask -- I didn't ask a follow-up.
Q: Does the President have the authority to continue the war in Iraq if Congress were to deauthorize it? Does he need congressional authorization to continue, in the White House view?
MS. PERINO: Since I'm not a lawyer, I'm going to decline to answer now, but let me consult with them and I'll get back to you. I just don't want to say one way or the other and guess.
Q: Yes, can I follow up on that?
Q: It's been done before.
MS. PERINO: Not by me.
Go ahead, Mark.
Q: Can I follow up on the discussions on the Hill? Can you describe for us the difference between good benchmarks and bad benchmarks, ones that the President would not accept?
MS. PERINO: Well, I think what we should point back to are the benchmarks that the President laid out and that Secretary Rice laid out in her letter back in January, and I think those are the things that we're looking for. The ones that are -- ones that come top of mind are of course, we talk a lot about it, the oil law. This is one where we would spread the wealth of the entire country across the country so that everyone could feel that they were benefiting from being a part of the society. That's one of them.
Another one is de-Baathification, to allow people who used to work in the lower levels of the Saddam Hussein government to be able to work again. I think that's critically important. All of us could understand why that would make sense. And then also the third one that comes to mind are the regional elections.
Q: I guess I wasn't being clear. What I meant is, good enforcement mechanisms versus bad enforcement mechanisms for benchmarks.
MS. PERINO: Well, I'm not going to talk about those types of things here from the podium. I've given my word that I will not talk about any specific discussions that are ongoing between Josh Bolten and members of Congress and their staffs. And while they continue to work on that, I think that it's prudent for me not to comment any further on weighing things one way or the other.
Q: Not even to talk about mechanisms that would require U.S. troops to redeploy elsewhere?
MS. PERINO: I'm going to allow all of those discussions to take place in the Congress, and then when we have something more to announce, we'll let you know.
Goyal. Goyal, then I'll get to Wendell. Go ahead, Goyal.
Q: Two quick questions, one on Iraq. If the Iranians missed the opportunity to greet and meet Dr. Rice at that meeting, that means Iranians are not serious about giving up their nuclear weapons program, and also not giving up their support for the terrorists in Afghanistan and Iraq.
MS. PERINO: I think you're conflating a couple of issues. You can ask the Iranians why they didn't talk with Secretary Rice there.
Q: What can you make out of this?
MS. PERINO: Sorry?
Q: What can you make out of this?
MS. PERINO: I think you'll have to ask the Iranians. I think the Iranians know what the international community -- not just the United States, but the international community, the Permanent Five plus one, has a path for Iran to have a nuclear program, a civilian nuclear program. They know how to get back to the talks, and that would be to suspend their enrichment and reprocessing activities, and until they do so, we're not going to talk to them.
Q: Second, also as far as immigration is concerned, there have been again, so many demonstrations and all that, also some beatings and all that went in Los Angeles. My question is, how serious is this immigration President is taking on? Who is to blame that not going through, Democrats, or Republicans, or --
MS. PERINO: I'm not going to place blame at anyone's feet. This is a very complicated legislation. Members of our White House and across the administration are working with members on Capitol Hill. I think there's a lot of goodwill to get this bill done. There should be a vote towards the end of this month, and we are working towards that. And we are very confident that we'll be able to get something done.
Q: Why does the President oppose broadening the hate crimes law to cover gays and lesbians?
MS. PERINO: I think the President -- the statement of administration policy that we put out was very clear, in that the opposition goes more to a federalism issue. The President believes that every single person deserves to be treated with dignity and respect, that violence against anyone is unacceptable and abhorrent. So I think I would encourage you to look at the statement of administration policy that says that we would oppose it solely on the grounds that it would federalize law enforcement of crimes already being addressed in the states.
Q: But he found it necessary, if you will, to take specific action when people are attacked because of race, and this is another attack on a person because of a characteristic, and not something the person is doing. You have a segment of the population that you decided needed protecting, and not this one, at least not federally?
MS. PERINO: As I understand it, the state laws address these issues in terms of all acts of violence covered all people. And so I think that the President is going to leave it in the states' hands. And that's what he said.
Q: So why should there be a special case for black people then?
MS. PERINO: I'm not a lawyer. All I know is what we said in our statement of administration policy. I take your point. I'll see if I can get you some more on it.
Q: Dana, can you confirm there are going to be top-level Russia-U.S. talks on the missile defense dispute? And what does the President want to get out of those?
MS. PERINO: Do you have a date? I don't know.
Q: I don't have a date. It was breaking five minutes before you came in here, and I don't know it was formally announced or not, but --
MS. PERINO: No, sorry, I was walking across the street, and I'll ask Gordon to get back to you.
Q: In that case, let me ask about Saudi Arabia's apparent -- they've now clarified that the reason that they turned down a meeting with Maliki is that they worry about his policies. Is this part of the follow-up by the Vice President? Is he going to Saudi Arabia specifically to try to get them to meet with Maliki and soften their --
MS. PERINO: I think that I'll let the Vice President and the Saudis have their conversations privately, and to the extent that he wants to read those out, I'm sure he'll provide information to you. No smirking, please. (Laughter.)
Q: It was a rueful grin, it wasn't a smirk. (Laughter.)
MS. PERINO: You'll be on the trip, and you'll have an opportunity to ask him yourself.
Q: The organizer of the Cinco de Mayo festival in Virginia says she's canceled the event because the U.S. federal immigration officials called and she fears they will use the festival as a chance to come and try to arrest -- Does the President fear that any of the Cinco de Mayo festivals -- does he think the federal officials should use this occasion to crack down on illegal immigrants?
MS. PERINO: I've not heard of that being a policy. I can't vouch for the accuracy of whether or not federal officials did call to say something like that. I think the President believes that anyone who is here illegally should come out of the shadows. And one of the ways we want to do that is have new legislation to be able to handle that.
I'm going to have to refer you to the Department of Homeland Security and the Immigration and Customs Enforcement Office for more on that to find out if they actually did make such a call.
Q: You mentioned a moment ago about a vote in the Senate on immigration -- a vote toward the end of the month. Was that referring to the Senate's version or --
MS. PERINO: I think it is that the Senate has said that they want to have a vote by the end of the month. But what shape that bill takes I'm not going to comment specifically on. I'll let them do that from there.
Q: Why does the President believe that the phone companies should get blanket immunity from lawsuits?
MS. PERINO: I saw the Justice Department commented on that yesterday and I'd refer you to them, since they are handling that law. This is in the FISA Modernization Act, and I'm not an expert on it. I would have to -- let me refer you to them so that I just don't get out of my lane. Anything else? No?
Then I'll just do Lester. One question, Lester, and then we'll be done. (Laughter.) I'll do one from you and one from Mark, and that's it.
Q: Just two.
MS. PERINO: I'm fast Dana today.
Q: Oooh. (Laughter.)
Q: -- three and four on the front row.
MS. PERINO: Go ahead. I want to go home. (Laughter.)
Q: Four hundred years ago, Jamestown, Virginia was settled by people whose first assignment from the King of England and the Virginia Company was to spread the gospel of Jesus Christ. The President did not recognize that in his proclamation regarding the anniversary. And my question: Does he plan to recognize the historic influence of Christianity when he travels to Jamestown on the 13th?
MS. PERINO: It's a little too early to preview those remarks, but when those come through staffing I'll call you.
Q: And just one other --
MS. PERINO: Very fast.
Q: The Media Research Center had deplored Time Magazine's leaving President Bush out of their 100 most influential people list. And my question: Does the President regret being left out of a list that includes Rosie O'Donnell, Osama bin Laden, and Al Gore?
MS. PERINO: No, but the feeling is mutual. (Laughter.)
Go ahead, Mark.
Q: One more on Iraq. Is the President willing to sign a bill that does not fund the war all the way through October, or will he accept something shorter than that?
MS. PERINO: I've seen some reporting about a short-term supplemental. We have said in the past that we think that that would not be a workable idea. I'm going to refrain from jumping on any possible kernel that's coming out about -- in terms of ideas that people have of how do we get to a clean bill that the President can sign that would fund the troops. But I think we've made comments in the past that we think funding for only two months is probably not the best idea, but I'm going to let Josh Bolten have those conversations.
END 12:44 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/274581