Press Briefing by Dana Perino
James S. Brady Press Briefing Room
12:37 P.M. EDT
MS. PERINO: Here at the White House today, obviously we're paying attention to the General Petraeus and Ambassador Crocker testimony. And the President said that he would try, if possible, to watch a bit of it in between his appointments today. He has quite a full schedule. And so we'll give you more information about that in a little bit.
One statement about last night's game, and then I have something on housing for you. As all of you March Madness fans know, many of you who watched a lot of those games in this room, the Kansas Jayhawks won the NCAA championship last night. This morning, at approximately 9:15 a.m, the President called Kansas Coach Bill Self to congratulate him and the rest of the team on their victory, and he invited the team to visit the White House this year. The President looks forward to watching tonight the women's championship game between Tennessee and Stanford.
On housing, as you know -- hope you know -- the Senate today is considering legislation that claims to support homeowners. When this bill was introduced we were hopeful that the Senate would preserve the good ideas in the initial proposal and remove the parts that we believed would do more harm than good.
The Senate defeated an attempt to include what we call a bankruptcy cramdown provision in its bill, and it included some of the President's provisions, like FHA modernization, which we've been calling for for a couple of years, and an expansion of mortgage revenue bonds. In the end, it appears that the Senate versions of even those proposals, because of changes that they made to it, raise concerns here. And therefore, this is not a bill that we could support.
The bill will likely do more harm than good by bailing out lenders and speculators, and passing on costs to other Americans who play by the rules and honor their mortgage debt obligations. In addition to the concerns with how the Senate treated the provisions we do like, the bill still retains many other provisions that we don't like -- provisions like the plan to fund purchases of foreclosed properties and a tax credit idea.
We have serious concerns that these elements and others would do little to help homeowners avoid foreclosure or reduce housing inventories. Fortunately, it doesn't appear likely that this bill will come to the President's desk, as the House has indicated that it plans to go its own way anyway. In the meantime, we're going to continue to work to ensure that the programs we have initiated, like FHASecure and HOPE NOW, are able to reach as many deserving homeowners as possible. Already these programs have helped more than a million homeowners.
Again, we continue to call on Congress to pass legislation to modernize the FHA, allow an increase in mortgage revenue bonds, dedicated to helping homeowners refinance, and reform oversight of Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac.
With that, I'll take your questions.
Q: When we hear General Petraeus's testimony, doesn't that foreshadow -- is it wrong to think that that foreshadows President Bush's decision? President Bush said in Kuwait, if you want to slow her down, it's up to you. So doesn't that mean what Petraeus is saying is what the President is going to do?
MS. PERINO: I think that General Petraeus and Ambassador Crocker were invited by members of Congress to come back and testify, and they're going to do that both today and tomorrow. They're going to answer a plethora of questions; it's appropriate to allow them to do that.
Tomorrow, the President will also invite the congressional leaders from both parties and from both the Senate and the House -- to hear their views about what they heard from General Petraeus and Ambassador Crocker, what their takeaway was. And then you'll hear from the President on Thursday. And it's just premature for me to forecast what he's going to say.
Q: Well, Senator Levin -- let me ask you if you agree with his characterization of what General Petraeus said. He said that what the General is proposing is an open-ended suspension. Would the White House agree with that characterization?
MS. PERINO: Well, I think that all you have to do is look back at the response that General Petraeus gave to that suggestion by Senator Levin, and you have your answer right there, which is that General Petraeus is not suggesting that, but he is making his recommendations based on his best judgment as the commander on the ground.
Q: But there's no timetable then for a resumption of troop withdrawals?
MS. PERINO: What he has said is that he would like to take -- have a period of reassessment. I'm not going to speak for him; he's done that himself. And we'll let them talk to members of Congress, and then the President -- you'll hear from him on Thursday.
Q: Dana, there have been a number of questions about the status of forces agreement. And I know you talked about it before, but can you say, if the Iraqi government is going to bring this agreement to the Iraqi parliament, why the administration wouldn't want to bring and consent with our Congress about this agreement, with a legal framework of setting up the way forward in Iraq?
MS. PERINO: As Ambassador Crocker just said, that the -- there are briefings already set up for our members of Congress to hear specifically about the strategic forces agreement. Negotiations are currently underway with the Iraqis. This is to establish a basic framework so that our coalition forces can continue to operate there with a legal framework after the U.N. mandate expires in December.
We're going to continue to work with Congress. We've said that -- we've been very clear as to what this agreement is and what it is not. And so they're going to continue to have that. What we have said is that if it reaches the level where it would need Senate ratification as a treaty, then that is the path we would go down. We don't anticipate that right now.
Q: So the Democrats, who are very concerned about this, you believe are mistaken?
MS. PERINO: I do believe they are mistaken, and I think that many of them are playing politics with this issue. And it's at the expense of our forces. I would assume that they would like our forces to have a legal framework to work under, since all of them have conceded that there are going to be -- our troops are going to be in Iraq after this President leaves office. So that is what our aim is.
And in addition to that, in the Declaration of Principles that the President and Prime Minister Maliki signed in November, we are going to talk about not just on the strategic forces agreement, but separately, across the board, in terms of the overall strategic picture, we are going to be working with the Iraqis on a range of issues, from scientific exchanges, cultural issues, economic progress and political progress.
The other thing I would point out that I don't know if many of you saw, since I know you've been watching the testimony, is the spokesman for the Iraqi government reported today that in their Council of Ministers meeting today, they decided to allocate $350 million to communities. This is $350 million -- Iraqi dollars -- I mean, U.S. dollars, but Iraqi funds, in order to help some of the places that were plagued by the recent violence. And this is $100 million for Basra, $100 million for Mosul, and $150 million for the governance of Baghdad, particularly to the al-Sadr and al-Shula cities. And they are also working on financial allocations that would go towards creating job opportunities and a housing program.
So what you see is that Maliki government, working across the board, and having their 15-point plan that they got -- all signed off on the other day, that he is being backed by his government to take on criminal elements, but at the same time, they're taking the fight to the enemy and rooting out those types of criminal elements and terrorists, that they are taking care of their communities and showing that there's an alternative vision, and hoping that these members of the Iraqi
-- well, I should say Iraqis -- not only just Sadrists, but others -- could see that there's an alternative vision of one of hope.
So there's lots of different aspects to this. Ambassador Crocker spoke I think quite eloquently across the board, on all these things that we are working on with them in order to get them to be a functioning country. And there's a long way to go, but we have made progress.
Q: Last one. Can you characterize the President's statement on Thursday and what we should look for? I know you're not going to ask for network TV time; is that right?
MS. PERINO: No, we're not. The President will give remarks sort of midday -- late morning/midday. And it will be remarks that cover a range of issues in regards to the way forward in Iraq, taking into account all that he's heard from General Petraeus and Ambassador Crocker, as well as the experts at the State Department and Department of Defense; and he'll hear from members of Congress tomorrow, as well.
Q: What role do you expect these members of Congress to play? I mean, are they going the change the President's mind on the future strategy?
MS. PERINO: The President listens to their input and we'll see what they have to say. Obviously, today I think that most members of Congress are focused on getting their questions asked and answered at these two hearings, in which they invited Ambassador General Petraeus to come, and they've given a considerable amount of time to the Congress, sitting there all day long today and all day tomorrow.
Q: What effect will the deaths of 11 Americans in Iraq just since this past Sunday have on the immediate future of the U.S. strategy, the President's thinking about --
MS. PERINO: I don't know if it would have a change in terms of the overall strategy. We mourn the loss of every one of those soldiers. And, in fact, this afternoon, the President is going to provide -- preside over a Medal of Honor ceremony for one of our soldiers that showed incredible bravery and selflessness when he sacrificed his own life for his comrades.
What the President is focused on is making sure that our troops have what they need to succeed and that we are supporting the overall mission, so that we can create a more stable Iraq, one that can sustain, govern and defend itself, and one that can be an ally in the war on terror.
Q: Finally, what's the status of the President's decision-making on the length of tours of the military in Iraq and Afghanistan?
MS. PERINO: Obviously he's listening to the experts, not just those who are in Iraq, but also from the Joint Chiefs, who he had a meeting with -- several meetings with, one about a month ago, and then just a week -- right before he went to the NATO summit. And so I think I'll just have to let you wait and see.
Q: Is that a component of the Thursday speech?
MS. PERINO: I'm going to decline to comment on what's in the speech and what's not. But it will be a broad-ranging -- it will be a wide-ranging speech on a variety of issues.
Q: The meeting tomorrow, is it exclusively on Iraq, or you expect them to discuss any kind of --
MS. PERINO: Any time members of Congress get together they bring up a range of issues. I would bet that they talk about the economy as well.
Q: And Colombia? Do you expect that to come up as well?
MS. PERINO: Possibly. Obviously we have that transmittal going up that we announced yesterday. So I think those -- you might -- maybe you just read out the agenda.
Q: Do you know what time the meeting is?
MS. PERINO: Mid-afternoon; I think after the testimony.
Q: Thank you, Dana.
MS. PERINO: Sorry, then I'll come over here.
Q: Two questions. First, since we presume the President is as devoted to human rights as any world leader, why has he failed to join the President of France, the Chancellor of Germany, and now the Prime Minister of Canada in their announced refusal to appear at China's Olympic Games?
MS. PERINO: I actually don't think that they have announced that they are going to do that. I think they announced that they are considering it.
Q: It's been reported that they have.
MS. PERINO: That's not exactly true, Les. The President's position on this has been very clear. But the key part of what the President can do as the President of the United States is before, during and after the Olympics, push very hard for increased human rights, press freedoms, and political freedom in China.
Q: A follow-up: In New York, attorney Bill Donohoe, who is the President of the Catholic League for Religious and Civil Rights, said yesterday, "China can't pretend to be religion-friendly while routinely censoring religious liberty. Senator Clinton gets it just right when she urges President Bush to boycott the Opening Ceremony, saying 'Americans will stand strong in support of freedom of religion and" --
MS. PERINO: What's your question?
Q: -- "political expression and human rights.'" And my question --
MS. PERINO: Question?
Q: -- does the President believe that both the Catholic League and Senator Clinton are wrong to make such a request?
MS. PERINO: No, they can make any request that they want. But I just told you what the President's position is.
Q: Has the President disagreed with anything that General Petraeus has said so far this morning?
MS. PERINO: One, I would never get into the back-and-forth like that. Obviously they've had weekly conversations and they spent a good deal of time together just about 10 days ago, for two hours on a secure video teleconference. And those meetings are private and I wouldn't -- I wouldn't purport to report to you what the President agreed with, or disagreed with. But you'll hear from the President on Thursday as to all the information he's gotten, how he's digested it and how he decides to proceed.
Q: Well, it appears from a lot of General Petraeus's comments so far that he's not advocating a new strategy on Iraq. So when the President speaks on Thursday, I mean, is there going to be any new component to his strategy on Iraq?
MS. PERINO: Why don't we wait and see? I think that you'll -- this is way too early for me to preview it, Toby.
Q: Can I just follow on the Olympics, since you said the President's position has been clear? Is he attending the Opening Ceremonies then?
MS. PERINO: We haven't provided any schedules on the President's trip.
Q: There's doubt about it then, right?
Q: Dana, to follow up on that --
Q: But, I mean, can I just follow on -- does that leave the door open to the President not attending the Opening Ceremonies, but attending some of the games to support the athletes?
MS. PERINO: I wouldn't put it that way, no.
Q: Is the decision to attend the Olympics irreversible, or might it be affected by developments?
MS. PERINO: Any time the President -- the President can always make a change. But the President has been clear that this is a sporting event for the athletes, and that pressuring China before, during and after the Olympics is the best way for us to try to help people across the board in China, not just Tibetans. And we are calling on the Chinese to reach out to the Dalai Lama, or to have -- or to reach out to the Dalai Lama's supporters and people, as they used to have a dialogue and we think that that was quite useful, and we are encouraging them to do that again.
Q: Wouldn't it be a better plan --
MS. PERINO: You had two questions.
Q: -- if he pulled out? Wouldn't that be a good protest?
Q: I just wanted to be specific. Is it being considered to attend the games and skip the Opening Ceremony? Is that under consideration?
MS. PERINO: I would not put it that way, no.
Q: You would not put it that way that it's even being considered?
MS. PERINO: I would not put it that way.
Q: Dana, what's the worst-case scenario to prevent the President from going, as there's a lot of pressure? I mean, you guys saying that you're watching what's going on, you're watching what's happening to the torch -- what is the worst-case scenario that could prevent the President from going just to even watch his athletes perform?
MS. PERINO: I don't think that that's a question that I can answer from the podium. I think speculation on worst-case scenarios are better left to people other than me.
Q: Can I ask you one more question, also going back to Iraq? The President is calling for more troops, more help with Afghanistan. Doesn't this prolong, by you saying that troops will be in Iraq as long as he's President, after he's President -- doesn't this prolong the President's efforts in Afghanistan? Because many are saying that you have to pull from Iraq, troop levels in Iraq, to put over in Afghanistan.
MS. PERINO: Well, the President has already said that we're going to take -- send 3,500 Marines that will be going to Afghanistan in order to help the Canadians and others, all of our NATO partners, and that we will be going towards the south of the country while the French move into the east. But what you saw last week at the NATO summit was that all the countries agreed that the mission in Afghanistan is critically important and that we all have to do more. And we've already announced those increases, and we're going to continue to work with our partners.
Iraq, in many ways, is way ahead of Afghanistan, in terms of reconstruction. As I just said, all of -- they have just announced today $350 million that will be -- of their own Iraqi funds that are going to be going towards these cities that need some help in the aftermath of the violence. And part of that is providing an alternative vision.
Afghanistan is a much poorer country, and it's going to need a lot of help for years to come.
Q: Dana, two quick questions. One, what message you think President has for the millions of Tibetans across the globe, they are demonstrating, including they were here at the White House last week?
MS. PERINO: The President believes that everyone should be able to express their views, to be able to practice their religion freely, and to be free from persecution.
Q: And second, as far as Afghanistan is concerned, since their freedom they were now hoping more from the NATO meeting, especially from the President, as far as for their security is concerned, because Talibans are now back. And they are asking more help.
MS. PERINO: Actually -- well, actually, if you look at what President Karzai said after the NATO summit, that he was very pleased with the commitments that the NATO countries provided.
Q: One last thing on the economy. You've mentioned before you're not happy with the Senate housing bill.
MS. PERINO: Right.
Q: In the House, Speaker Pelosi is talking about a second stimulus plan. It seems like the White House has concerns with that. Can you lay out those concerns?
MS. PERINO: Well, I think, first of all, one of the most important things that we all agreed on when we did the first stimulus plan -- which hasn't even been able to go into effect yet, but will start the 1st of May -- is that elements of it should be stimulative. And I think that's going to be a test for anything that we do in the future.
And the President will have an opportunity to talk to members of Congress tomorrow afternoon, and I would assume that not only do they talk about Iraq, but they'll probably talk about Colombia, but surely the economy will be on the agenda as well.
Q: Some Democrats are saying, though, that even though the first one hasn't fully kicked in, it did not include extension of unemployment benefits, for example, and that that might be good in a second package. Is that something that the President would consider, extending unemployment benefits?
MS. PERINO: At this point, no, given that the unemployment rate that we have is historically and relatively low at just over 5 percent. But we are concerned about people that are -- have lost their jobs, or are afraid about they are going to lose their jobs. And then there's the housing crisis on top of that. And so that's why we have multiple programs across the board in order to help them.
And when it comes to trade, one of the things that the President said yesterday is that while he strongly supports the Colombia free trade agreement, he will also be willing to work with Congress on Trade Adjustment Assistance for those people across America who feel that their jobs have been lost because of changes in either technologies, or because of trade with another country.
Q: Thank you.
END 12:54 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/276960