Press Briefing by Dana Perino
James S. Brady Press Briefing Room
1:15 P.M. EDT
MS. PERINO: Hello. A couple of announcements. First of all, President Bush called Russian President Medvedev today to congratulate him on his inauguration. The two leaders underscored the importance of the U.S.-Russia relationship, and they look forward to working together, with the recent Sochi agreement being used as a basis for future cooperation. They discussed briefly the recent 123 Agreement regarding nuclear energy that was signed last week in Moscow. And President Bush raised his concerns about the situation in Georgia, and hope that all sides were working to reduce tensions. The two Presidents said they look forward to seeing each other at the G8 in Japan.
Also the President called Prime Minister Putin to wish him well in his new post. Both President Medvedev and Prime Minister Putin congratulated the President on Jenna's wedding, and wished the new couple and the whole Bush family well. And President Bush certainly appreciated those comments.
Also today, the President extends his condolences to those injured and to the families of the victims of today's earthquake in China. He said he was particularly saddened by the number of students and children affected by this tragedy, and that the thoughts and prayers of the American people are with the Chinese, especially those directly affected. He also said that the United States stands ready to help in any way possible.
Q: Dana, there's another outbreak of violence today in Lebanon. How is that going to affect the President's trip to the Middle East? Is this going to raise new tensions and new issues that have to be dealt with?
MS. PERINO: Well, the issue of Hezbollah's negative influence, especially given that it is backed by the Iranians, is deeply troubling to the President. It's of concern, especially because there are innocent Lebanese who are caught in the middle of this conflict. The President has been calling for many months for the outside influencers to get out of the way and let the Lebanese have the democratically elected government that they voted for. And President Siniora* has shown tremendous courage, and that is not something that anyone can think of as something that was to be taken lightly in this situation. It's taken a lot of courage to stand as strong as he has in the past, and the President certainly stands with him now.
You can bet that this is a topic that will come up on the President's trip, and I know that Secretary Rice will be -- might have comments on this later today, probably in a written statement.
But in the meantime, we remain concerned. Our State Department officials are working very closely with those to try to help calm the tensions and reduce the violence.
Q: Is he changing any aspects of his trip to deal with this?
MS. PERINO: No schedule changes that I'm aware of.
Q: On Lebanon. Is the President disappointed or concerned about Siniora turning over the decisions that Hezbollah has complained about to the army?
MS. PERINO: I didn't get a direct -- I didn't find out, in terms of a direct, specific concern on that particular issue. I would tell you that we are troubled by the situation. We believe that Lebanon should not be used as a pawn in the Middle East, and that for the future of the Middle East, that you're going to have to have a democratic and peaceful Lebanon for that region to be able to thrive the way that it could if they're allowed to have peace. And if Iranian-backed and Syria-backed militias and fighters and sending in weapons -- all the negative influences that they're having in the region need to be halted. They need to change their behavior. And the President will call on them to do that during his trip.
Q: Dana, on China, you said the United States stands ready to help in any way we can. Have we heard from the Chinese? Have we reached out to them? And what might we able to offer?
MS. PERINO: We're certainly in touch with them, and I think right now the Chinese are gathering information, assessing the damage, seeing what they may or may not need. We don't have a request for help right now. What we can do as a country is offer our support and our thoughts and our prayers. And in the meantime, we'll continue to see if there is anything that we can do to help them. I think that we have a good relationship with the Chinese, and the times of need like this we can come together and help each other.
Q: Speaking of aid, Dana, what's the latest on Myanmar and what our government is doing there?
MS. PERINO: This morning, finally, one of our planes was able to land in Burma, to bring much needed aid. It's very -- it's not enough. It's a drop in the bucket for what they're going to need, and we would hope that the Burmese junta would allow more flights to come in. We know that two more will be allowed to land tomorrow. But again, it's a little bit like a drop in the bucket. The amount of need in the country is tremendous. The President is very concerned about it. And in fact, I just was talking to him about the concerns for the human condition and the possibility that many more people are needlessly suffering and possibly could end up dying because the junta will not allow this aid to get to them.
So Henrietta Fore, who is the Director of USAID, and Admiral Keating were on the plane. They went from Bangkok to Burma. They're going to -- they returned to Bangkok, and they're going to be there for a little while to try to coordinate efforts. We're very good at helping organize these types of efforts, if you look at what happened in the tsunami. We have assets in the region, and we're standing by ready to help, as are other governments. And it is a shame what is happening to the people there.
Q: Yes, Dana, a new ABC News/Washington Post poll says that 82 percent of Americans believe the country is heading on the wrong track; that's up 10 points from a year ago. What do you say to those 82 percent?
MS. PERINO: Well, look, we're aware of polls. They're something that I know that news media organizations love to do, and in fact it helps -- every week you could see a new poll from multiple organizations. So I think that what we would say to that is that, one, we understand that the war in Iraq has brought down -- has brought negative feelings about where the country is headed. But also, one thing you can track over and over again through the years is high gas prices. High gas prices have a really negative effect on the psychology of the country, as well as on the economy. It's like a drag on the economy and a tax on the working people.
So best -- the most important thing we can do is make sure that, first of all, Congress doesn't do any more harm to the problem and exacerbate higher gas prices. And also, we can take some steps to try to get us out of this mess, because we have seen this over time, over the past several years; every spring these gas prices go up, and mostly because we have problems with supply and demand. There's a lot of demand, growing demand throughout the world, and a limited supply.
So we need to do a couple of things: one, drill domestically here in environmentally sensitive ways so that we can become less dependent on foreign sources of energy, and at the same time continue to push investment into these new technologies like lithium-ion batteries, which would allow all of us to have the opportunity to buy a vehicle that runs on batteries for the first 40 miles, which is pretty much the average for daily use in America.
So there's a variety of things that we can do. But in regards to the poll numbers, I'll just refer you to your own experts.
Q: Can I just follow on that?
MS. PERINO: Another ABC question?
Q: Later this week the President will see the King of Saudi Arabia. Specifically, is there anything he can ask the King to do to moderate the price of oil --
MS. PERINO: I think that -- as you've heard the President say multiple times, we have a problem in the world of lack of supply being able to keep up with demand. And luckily, in the United States, we have very good neighbors to our north and our south, Canada and Mexico, from which we get the majority of our imported oil. But we can do a lot more at home as well. Will he ask the Saudis to consider the drain on the world economy because of high gas prices? Yes, of course. He raises it every time that he can. But I think that we also need to remember that we have problems that we can try to solve here at home, and one of those is to find a way to help make ourselves more self-reliant on oil that we have right here.
Q: Has it fallen on deaf ears every time that he's raised it before?
MS. PERINO: I don't think that. I wouldn't put it that way, and I think that people should look at supply constraints around the world, and also instability, if you look what happens in Nigeria, for example, in the oil fields there, with conflict causing problems with people being able to get out a supply. So there's a lot of different factors that go into high gas prices -- well, high oil prices, which translates then into higher gas prices. So we should be tackling them on all levels, not just talking to one country.
Q: Dana, what about the calls from members of Congress to stop putting oil in the Strategic Petroleum Reserve, including a letter recently from several Republican senators to do that? Any change of position from the White House?
MS. PERINO: Sure. Look -- change of position? I should have let you ask your question first before I say, sure. No, our position hasn't changed, in that this is -- the Strategic Petroleum Reserve is in place for specific national security reasons, in case there are supply disruptions. We tap into it every once in a while when we have a major supply disruption, like we did, I think, right after Katrina.
But the President has -- believes that we need an even larger Strategic Petroleum Reserve in order to protect ourselves against oil shocks, such as, like I mentioned, instability that might happen in a country around the world. So the SPR that we -- the SPR fill that we have now is one-tenth of one percent of daily supply. So it would have a negligible impact on gas prices. But we know that there's a lot of members of Congress who are interested in this idea. We'll see what they send -- or if they're able to pass any legislation and send it to us. But we don't believe that it would have a big enough impact on prices for anybody to really notice.
Q: Dana, on that issue --
MS. PERINO: Okay, just one question. Go ahead, Les.
Q: One question?
MS. PERINO: One question. On this issue, go ahead.
Q: Yes, on this issue, but I have another one.
MS. PERINO: No. Let's do this, and then we'll move on. Go ahead.
Q: Oh, all right. Does the White House support Texas Republican Senator Kay Bailey Hutchison's Domestic Energy Production Act of 2008? And if so, how will the President help make this a major issue in this fall's election?
MS. PERINO: I'm not familiar with all the aspects of her legislation, so we'll get back to you on the specifics. And if you're talking about one of them being the Strategic Petroleum Reserve, I would refer you back to the answer I just gave to Mike.
Q: What about calls to sell from the SPR to increase supply in the market?
MS. PERINO: Well, again, I think that the President, as the person responsible for the safety and security of the American people, would resist any calls to start selling off Strategic Petroleum Reserve oil when we don't think it would have that big of an impact on prices, and because we use it in case of an emergency. It's like the fire extinguisher: "Break in Case of Emergency." I don't know if the -- I understand that high gas prices have having an impact on our economy. And we are still -- we are still growing, sluggishly. It's weak. But we are growing. And we are able to overcome some of this because of the ingenuity in our economy. But I don't think that the Commander-in-Chief would believe it would be prudent to start selling off our Strategic Petroleum Reserve when that is our reserve for emergencies.
Go ahead, Jim.
Q: What specific steps -- when you say the President says we should be doing more domestically, what specifically should we be doing?
MS. PERINO: Jim, you must have been gone for the past three weeks. We talk about it every day.
Q: Well, I'll tell you what. He talks about drilling on the Outer Continental Shelf, but as Representative Peterson, Republican from Pennsylvania, pointed out last Friday, you have a dual policy. In the President's own budget, he prohibited the Department of Interior from spending any money on pre-leasing or leasing on the Outer Continental Shelf. So the President's budget precludes any drilling or exploration of the Outer Continental Shelf, and yet he says we should be drilling in the Outer Continental Shelf.
MS. PERINO: Let me go back and look at that, because I think there's different reasons for that. I do think that when you have states like Virginia, for example, that wants to drill in environmentally responsible ways off of its coast and out of the viewshed, then I think that's something that we really ought to consider. If we don't want to be dependent on foreign sources of energy, we should find the ways to both find domestic -- traditional sources of oil that we can use right here, as well as the alternatives that we're seeking as well.
Q: As you know, one of the biggest reserves of oil and gas is right off the coast of Florida. Florida has been (inaudible) drilling all over the Outer Continental Shelf on the East. The President made a deal with his brother not to drill in Florida. Is the President now reconsidering --
MS. PERINO: I think that you -- it's a lot more complicated than that, Jim, and I think you have to go back and look at the miles that they talk about, in terms of how far out the drilling would be. But again, I would point you to a state like Virginia, which, on a bipartisan basis, their state decided that they wanted to do this, and they were precluded from doing so. I think that --
Q: Florida is a gold mine, and we haven't actually --
MS. PERINO: Look, you can -- the same could be said about ANWR. I mean, there's a lot of different places that we could find sources of energy here in the United States.
Q: The President didn't make a deal with the Governor of Alaska. He made a deal with his brother.
MS. PERINO: But Jim, we're not talking about -- there's -- as I just said, there's lots of different places. And I would point you back to there's a hundred-mile limit, or something like that -- this is going back several years ago, so it's slightly more complicated than how you're just trying to paint it here.
What I would submit to you is that in the mid-'90s, and from about 1995 on, we've been blocked at trying to do different types of domestic drilling here, because people wanted to just try to figure out a way to solve our problems through alternatives. Well, look, we're all for alternatives, and we're plowing money into investing into alternative sources of energy and different types of technologies, and we're also figuring out a way to reduce our demand so that we can go farther on a gallon of gas. All of these things are ways to tackle the problem. So I wouldn't point to just one well out in the middle of the Gulf --
Q: It's 20 trillion cubic feet of gas.
MS. PERINO: Of natural gas. You're not --
Q: Of natural gas.
MS. PERINO: Natural gas is not going to power your vehicle.
Q: No, but it will keep jobs from moving off-shore.
MS. PERINO: But that's not -- that wasn't the question that you asked me, Jim. I'm going to go on.
Q: Dana, I have a couple questions for you. First is, did either President Medvedev or Prime Minister Putin give the President any assurances on the situation in Georgia?
MS. PERINO: I don't -- all I know is what I have here, so I don't know.
Q: And there are news reports that the President next week is going to announce that Israel is going to be getting a high-tech U.S. radar as part of a missile defense system or -- can you confirm that? Is that --
MS. PERINO: Nothing to confirm here, but let me see if I can do something on both of those issues for you later today.
Q: Get you off the hook with some easy ones on the Middle East. By the way, Israel is about to unveil an electric car -- or unveil an electric car, but that's not my question. Does the administration envision a two-state solution between Israel and the Palestinians such as the one proposed in partition in 1948? And if the Israelis and the Palestinians believe this is not the time to have two states, could the U.S. accept the status quo right now?
MS. PERINO: Well, let me put it -- let me just back up and I'll answer both questions with one answer, which is, President Bush believes that the Israelis and the Palestinians are at a position right now where they could come together to try to define what a Palestinian state would look like. And a lot of work is going on behind the scenes, out of the glare of the spotlight and away from the microphones, as they try to work on these very complex issues -- issues that are deeply rooted in conflict over the centuries, even.
So we believe that we have a chance to do that this year, to get this state defined, and that then we will be able to provide a competing vision for those forces that would rather murder innocent people to advance their political objectives, like what's going on in the Gaza Strip right now.
Q: But if the parties are not ready for it, could the U.S. accept that?
MS. PERINO: Well, look, I think that the two leaders that you have right now that are negotiating this, and actually representing their governments, the Israeli government and the Palestinian, they are committed to it. And I think you have to look at that. I don't think that you can deduce what's happening behind closed doors, because we don't know. And I actually think they're making more progress than we're able to say, because they're doing it in a way that is the right way to negotiate a deal.
Q: But Hamas, Gaza, Hezbollah -- none of them are part of the process.
MS. PERINO: Well, as -- but the President of the Palestinian Territories, President Abbas, is the leader of all Palestinians, and he is working with Prime Minister Olmert, and they're working on a deal. That's who -- those are the two entities that should be talking.
Go ahead, April.
Q: Dana, back on the oil issue. At least one oil expert says that this meeting with the Saudis and President Bush is an exercise that really is not going to go anywhere, and both sides know that, because what the Saudis are producing is oil that America really is not prepared to handle, the sour crude, whereas we need a light, sweet crude, and we don't have the sour crude refineries that can convert it, and it's not really going to do anything to help.
MS. PERINO: And your question is?
Q: I mean, the question is, is the fact that, I mean, is this just basically posturing, as some of these oil experts are saying, just to show the American public that we are trying to help versus just --
MS. PERINO: You have to remember something, April. We don't get -- oil is a global market, so we aren't getting direct imports and we're not buying directly from the Saudis. As I said, our imports, over half of our imports come from our neighbors to the north and the south, Canada and Mexico. So those are our biggest trading partners. There might be other countries that can take the other type of crude oil and put it through their refineries and be able to use it. So it's a global oil market. I think that's what that expert is --
Q: But the President is going to ask for an input -- an increase from Saudis in their oil production?
MS. PERINO: Well, the point is that we have -- you increase global demand, and decreasing global supply, or tightening global supply. And so the goal is to get more oil on the market so that on a worldwide basis we can try to get that balance back.
Q: And a last question on this. Also, there's some people who have said that because we are going to foreign countries, adversaries as well as competitors for oil, it's a national security issue. What do you say about that?
MS. PERINO: Well, I just talked about that. In fact, one of the things that we do to protect our national security is we have a Strategic Petroleum Reserve, which is there for use in case of emergencies where we have a disruption in supply that would negatively affect our economy. We've used it sparingly in the past. The President has used it prudently. Attempts to manipulate price through the use of Strategic Petroleum Reserve have not been successful in the past. The impact on price is negligible, and so I think we have to weigh the cost-benefit analysis when asked about the Strategic Petroleum Reserve. Okay?
Q: Dana, were you able to get anything on the North Korean documents, including the --
MS. PERINO: No, I'll have to refer you to State Department.
Mike, did you have another one?
Q: Quick one on a different topic, Dana. My understanding is this morning on the farm bill you said the $500,000 farm subsidy cap, while a concession, is not enough. I'm wondering where things stand from your perspective on the farm bill, and is the bottom line -- will the President veto this if we give farmers making above $200,000 a year a subsidy?
MS. PERINO: We believe that the farm bill that's currently being considered by Congress is bad for the American taxpayers. And the President -- if it passes in its current form, the President would veto this bill. And the reason is because we -- well, there might have been some concessions on both sides. It still doesn't do enough. It still has too much spending, and not enough reform. And they had an opportunity to do more this year, and they decided not to.
MS. PERINO: Okay, go ahead.
Q: Two quick questions. One, as far as the President's trip to the Middle East is concerned, (inaudible) he's going to talk about the situation in Afghanistan, because that is the major, now, challenge for the U.S. and NATO, and especially for the U.S. presence there, because there was a briefing this morning at Carnegie, that's what they said, that now time may be running out as far as a major breakthrough, but --
MS. PERINO: Question?
Q: Question is that also, the Israeli (inaudible), who was the spiritual leader here, he also said that education is the major problem, that they have to be educated on the border of Afghanistan and Pakistan in the FATA area. So the President is going to talk about this issue during his trip?
MS. PERINO: During this trip to the Middle East?
Q: Yes, on this Afghanistan problem?
MS. PERINO: I don't believe that we'll be talking too much on Afghanistan and Pakistan on this particular trip, but obviously there's people constantly working on it.
Q: Second, since this was a press closed event, Jenna's wedding, you have anything you want to talk about? (Laughter.)
MS. PERINO: No. Andre.
Q: Dana, I wanted to ask you about the second call, which has not been reported in the --
MS. PERINO: I'm sorry, could you speak up just a bit?
Q: Yes, I wanted to ask you about the calls, how long they lasted, and about the Putin call, which has not been reported in Russia, so far as I know. What did they talk about?
MS. PERINO: I'm breaking news right here for you? (Laughter.) The calls only lasted a few minutes each.
Q: Did they talk about the new Russian government at all?
MS. PERINO: In terms of the cabinet that was formed? No, I don't believe so. But I'll see if I can get you more detail.
Q: Dana, on my first question -- and there's a second question -- yesterday's Washington Post linked a North Korean businessman and mainland China interests to the Syrian construction site that was bombed by Israel a few months back because Israel announced it to be a nuclear weapons plant. And my question: What does the White House believe it means to the safety of the world to have these three repressive nations joining forces on a project that surely could have been nuclear?
MS. PERINO: I'm not familiar with it, Les. I'll have to get back to you.
Q: Thank you.
END 1:37 P.M. EDT
*Prime Minister Siniora
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/277886