Press Briefing by Dana Perino
White House Conference Center Briefing Room
12:45 P.M. EDT
MS. PERINO: Welcome back, everybody. I don't have any opening announcements, so we can go straight to questions.
Q: Senator Reid said today, in response to the President's invitation to come down and talk, he said the President has to deal with Congress and he has got to listen to us, and that what the President is offering is not a negotiation.
MS. PERINO: I'm not quite sure where to begin with all that, because, first of all, they have known for 64 days that the President needed this money for the troops. Secondly, they've known for well over a month -- before they even passed the two bills, one out of the House and one out of the Senate -- that the President would veto it, based on the arbitrary time line in terms of a date for a forced retreat, the micromanaging that they put into the bill that would handcuff our generals on the ground, and then the extra pork barrel spending that they had to include in order to get the ball across the finish line.
On March 28th, Senator Reid points to a letter he sent to the President, saying that they wanted to sit down and talk. So now that the President, after their two-week recess, says, why don't we have this discussion, I'm not quite sure I can understand why he so, out of hand, rejects the President's offer to meet. It was a knee-jerk reaction and it was quite unfortunate. The invitation stands; we would like for them to come down and talk with us.
Q: But you said that it's not a negotiation. And what I think Senator Reid is saying is the President has got to listen to the Congress and has to deal with the Congress. Is there room for negotiation and compromise from the White House?
MS. PERINO: Well, the President has said we should not have a bill that ties the hands of our generals and that adds all this extraneous spending and puts strings on all the money that they say that they want to give to the troops. He's asked for a clean bill.
Senator Reid has me very confused. On the one hand, he says that they want to fund the troops. But on the other hand
-- at what price are they going to give this money to the troops? They believe that the war either cannot be won, or that it has already been lost. And so if they have the courage of their convictions and they really want to cut off funding for the troops, then they should go ahead and do that. But instead, what the President is saying is, if you need for me to veto this bill, I will -- reluctantly, but I will, if that's the political statement that you need to make. But if the goal is, as you've stated -- at least in some parts of your communication on this
-- that they want to get the money to the troops, then let's go ahead and have a clean bill. If you want to have other discussions, that's fine, but the President has said, let's meet, let's discuss. You can talk about how -- you don't have the votes to override my veto, but yet you say you want to fund the troops. So why don't we have a discussion about how we're going to get there.
Q: Dana, the Senator, I think, was addressing sort of the bigger picture of the tone of these discussions. And he said -- I'd like to get you to respond to this -- that the President must realize he has to deal with Congress, that there's no more rubber stamp. He's got to listen to us because we are speaking for the American people and he isn't.
MS. PERINO: I don't -- look, the President has been dealing with Congress since we got here in 2001. I understand that they have said many times that there's a Congress to deal with, that there's constitutional roles for them to play. We agree. We have a constitutional role to play, as well. What they can do in their constitutional role is decide whether or not they're going to fund the troops. They don't have the constitutional role to micromanage the war effort, and the management of the commanders on the ground.
I think that the tone that everyone needs to take a step back and look at is that the President is saying, let's go ahead and have a discussion about how we're going to get a bill to me that funds our troops, because you have to admit you don't have the votes to override my veto.
Q: But he's saying -- he is saying, I think Senator Reid is saying, look, the President doesn't -- he's not the sole determinant of the discussion about the way forward in Iraq. The President has the way he wants to proceed, but Harry Reid is saying that Congress is speaking for the American people when it comes to how to proceed in Iraq, not the President.
MS. PERINO: I don't think the American people are saying that the generals should be handcuffed and that there should be micromanagement by Senator Harry Reid as a military advisor. He should be the Senator from Nevada and the leader of the Senate. The American people have wanted change in Iraq, and they got it. The President announced a new policy on January 10th that was quite different and divergent from where we were before. And about three weeks later, the Senate unanimously confirmed General Petraeus and sent him to war with a battle plan. And yet now they say that that battle plan won't work.
And so my point is, we have an opportunity for them to come down and discuss how we're going to get money for the troops. I understand that they might not agree with the President's policy, but there is a new one, and it's been implemented according to General Petraeus and many others on the ground. Despite the real challenges that we have and the violence that continues, seeds of hope have been planted, that we can get the violence under control. So the tone of the discussion rests on both sides.
Q: Were you listening to Senator Reid today? Your reaction was what? Would you say confusion?
MS. PERINO: Well, I think it -- I was only able to read his comments, I wasn't able to see them. But I am confused by the Democrats' position, and by their own position. On the one hand, he says he would vote to cut off funds for the troops completely. On the other hand, today he says that they would never do that. So our point is, the Democrats ought to negotiate amongst themselves first, figure out what their position is, and then come forward and talk to the President about either how they're going to send him a bill that can fund the troops that meets the requirements of being able to give the troops what they need without strings attached, or, if they're not going to do that, then they have to figure out another path forward.
Q: So, Dana, just to follow, I mean, if the Democrats don't come up with a negotiation or something that's different to present to the President, then what do they have to get out of this meeting? I mean, the President and the administration always accuses them of political theater, but how is it not more than a photo op if they're not really -- if the White House isn't willing to give anything?
MS. PERINO: I think, Suzanne, you have to remember, the ball is in the Congress's court. When they know that they can't override the President's veto, and yet they still say that they want to send money to the troops, it is incumbent upon them to figure out how they're going to do that. And this discussion with the President can provide for a forum for both leaders. Remember, it's a bipartisan meeting -- Republicans and Democrats can sit down, talk with the President about his position, and about how they can move forward.
Q: The bottom line is, is that it's a take-it-or-leave-it deal from this administration; there's no room for negotiation?
MS. PERINO: The President will not accept a timetable for withdrawal that forces retreat and forces failure. And he will not accept micromanagement from Capitol Hill on his generals. And it is unconscionable that they would have pork barrel spending added to it that is -- for tours of the Capitol and other such "emergencies" in an emergency spending bill when there is a budget process that's going forward in Congress on a parallel track. I think that those are principled stands that the President has had. If we can get beyond that, and talk about funding for the troops, we should. We are interested in how they think that we can improve in Iraq. If they have other ideas beyond what General David Petraeus is going, by all means, let's hear them.
Go ahead, Matt.
Q: You seem to be saying that the President wants to talk to the Democrats about this.
MS. PERINO: We have an open invitation for them to come talk to us.
Q: But he's actually ruling out any kind of compromise, is that correct?
MS. PERINO: This is not a meeting in order to compromise. This is a meeting to discuss the way forward, because the Democrats have to admit that they don't have the votes to override the President's veto. And at the same time, they say that they want to fund the troops. So at some point, the Democrats are going to have to come to a consensus on how to move forward. And a meeting with the President is a chance for the leaders to get together -- leadership from both parties -- to sit down and figure out how they're going to do that.
Q: You said that this was a change of policy for the President, the surge.
MS. PERINO: Certainly.
Q: And so escalation of the war is a change of policy?
MS. PERINO: Helen, we can go back over all the things that the President said in January, but there was a couple of key points.
Q: No, no, I mean, is that what you call a change of policy, when we escalate the war?
MS. PERINO: A couple of key points. What the President said is that we needed to -- agreed with the Iraqis that we needed to try to transition power to them more quickly for their Iraqi security forces. But the key issue was that violence in Baghdad was so great that the President realized after talking to his military advisors that to leave would be very harmful to the region and to our country, but to stay and try to quell the violence in Baghdad --
Q: But why? Do you mean Iraqis are going to come and attack us?
MS. PERINO: The terrorists that are seeking a safe haven in Iraq, if we were to leave, would find one, just like they had one in Afghanistan, and they could --
Q: How do you know that?
MS. PERINO: -- hurt us and -- well, based on experience from September 11th. That's how we know it.
Q: September 11th had nothing to do with Iraq.
Q: When the President today said if Congress wants to make a political statement they should do so quickly -- and then you also used that phrase -- does referring to Congress's role in this as a political statement in any way diminish their part in this process?
MS. PERINO: No, I think that the point we're trying to make is that they do not have votes to override the President's veto. In order to get this bill passed, they had to add fixed time lines for withdrawal, they had to add micromanagement on the generals, and they had to have a lot of extra pork barrel spending in order to get the bare minimum in order to get the ball across the finish line.
That is the political statement that I think that the President felt that they had to make. If they have decided that they don't need to have all of those positions out there, if they've taken their votes and that they don't need to send that conference -- get together for a conference report and send a bill to the President that he has to veto, fine. But what we have to do is get a process going where they can get a clean bill to us.
Q: Does the President risk using the troops when this morning he talked about if this does not go the way he wants, those troops and their families may have to wait longer for them to come home?
MS. PERINO: The President takes great pains not to politicize the troops. But what he was repeating was what the military -- Department of Defense has told him they are going to have to do, since they don't have this money.
Q: What would you consider a clean bill? And could a clean bill include goals for withdrawals in the future, versus the hard time lines that the Democrats seem to --
MS. PERINO: Well, I think that hopefully the Democrats will come down and have a meeting with the President on Tuesday and they can have discussions. I'm not going not going to negotiate from here.
Go ahead, Keith.
Q: I'm just having a little trouble understanding the meeting, I guess. On the one hand, it's not a negotiation, but it does sound like while the President is going to reject these bills that are out there, that he is willing to entertain some other ideas from the Democrats, as long as there aren't timetables and there isn't micromanaging. Of course, that's a word you can define --
MS. PERINO: There are some very clear lines that the President has drawn and they are outlined in our statements of administration policy and we've talked about them for well over a month now. What the President has said is that he's very serious about getting this money for our troops. He laid out the reasons why, the drastic reasons why from the Department of Defense -- on why we need to get that money to them sooner than later. It's a very real problem now.
Q: But in this meeting he is willing to listen to other Democratic ideas --
MS. PERINO: The President has always been willing to listen to other ideas.
Q: Okay, so could it end up becoming a negotiation of putting their ideas out and he has ideas -- I mean, it sounds like it might be a negotiation.
MS. PERINO: I think that the point that Suzanne was making was, if they have ideas about how we can improve in Iraq, the President was -- absolutely wants to hear them. Many members went to the Middle East and to Iraq over the recess, and if they saw something there that they think General Petraeus and his men could be doing better, by all means, I'm sure that we'd all like to hear it.
Go ahead, Sheryl.
Q: I guess I'm also having trouble understanding this meeting and what the Democrats could get out of it, and what role does the President see himself playing. You said this is not a meeting in order to compromise, it's a meeting to discuss a way forward. Does the President envision himself as some kind of mediator in this effort to --
MS. PERINO: No, I think the President understands that it's incumbent upon him to explain to the members his positions and reasons why. And it's not just the President that thinks that arbitrary timetables are a bad idea. The military advisors do; Prime Minister Maliki today said he thinks it's a bad idea. And -- because really what it does is it just signals to the enemy that we're going to be leaving on this date; sit around and wait a while, and then you can attack us at will. So what the President wants to do is to tell the Congress that once you're back in town, after this two-week break, let's get together and let's get about the business of getting the money for our troops.
Q: Is it his -- does he envision himself simply giving kind of a private lecture to Congress of the sort that he has been giving publicly?
MS. PERINO: The President is not asking to lecture anybody, nor does he want to. We understand that the Congress has a role to play; we understand what that role is. I would hope that they understand what the Commander-in-Chief's role is. And if a meeting can help alleviate some of the tension, then that's what we are for.
Q: And then, finally, if a bill were to include sort of softer milestones, as opposed to fixed timetables for withdrawal, is that something that could be acceptable to the President?
MS. PERINO: This is the same question that John asked, and I'll give you the same answer. I'll decline to negotiate from here.
Q: Realistically, both sides are entrenched on their opinions of this, and you're saying it's not a compromise. What, realistically, are you expecting as an outcome from this meeting?
MS. PERINO: Well, I think that's up to the Democrats right now. I think that they don't have the votes to override the President's veto, they've known that for many weeks. They also have said that they want to fund the troops. So at some point the Democrats are going to have to come together amongst themselves and coalesce around a position that the President can talk to -- that the President then can talk to them about.
Q: Does it benefit this White House to keep its feet in the sand, saying, I'm not going to move, and allow them to just stay the same way?
MS. PERINO: I think it benefits the troops and the American people for the Commander-in-Chief to be a strong, principled leader, which is what the President is.
Q: And another subject, quickly. Yesterday you gave me a statement from the President that he said Don Imus's apology was the appropriate thing to do. Does the President, who has supported women in his administration, African American women, Secretary of State, you standing there at the podium, does he feel that punishment of the suspension of Don Imus was enough, and should the FCC have stronger rulings or regulations on sexist and racist statements?
MS. PERINO: I haven't talked to him beyond what I was able to get yesterday, which is that the President believes that the apology was the absolute right thing to do. And beyond that, I think that his employer is going to have to make a decision about any action that they take based on it.
Q: Were you offended personally as a woman?
MS. PERINO: Well, I'm here to speak for the President. So you and I can talk later.
Q: You got out of that one. (Laughter.)
MS. PERINO: Go ahead, Paula.
Q: Dana, you frequently mention the pork barrel spending as -- needed to be taken out, but you don't mention the minimum wage -- (inaudible) -- does that have to be --
MS. PERINO: I don't believe so. I think that -- well, obviously, the President wants a clean bill, and he wants it as quickly as possible, and things that are going to hold it up would not be -- he would not look favorably upon. On that issue, I believe that there's a little bit more consensus. But I think we'll have to see how it goes from there.
Q: Can you tell us, Dana, where the administration stands on the stem cell bills that are coming up on the Hill now, and the rationale, too?
MS. PERINO: Well, earlier today -- as you know, the Senate is going to be debating this on the floor the next two days. A couple of things on that. We put out two statements of administration policy earlier today. There are two -- there are several bills moving through Congress, but there are two that are going to be debated on the floor this week. One the President said that he strongly supports and could sign, and the other one is similar to one that he vetoed before and he would veto again if it were to pass.
Just taking a step back -- in 2001, the President was confronted with this ethical challenge and ethical dilemma. And as President, he had given the issue a considerable amount of thought. He consulted with religious leaders and bio-ethicists and scientists. He has -- it is incumbent upon the President to balance both the moral and the ethical boundaries for new scientific research.
His policy reaches balance in a way that he believes does not cross what he considers to be a clear moral line. And that was that tens of millions of Americans believe that embryos are human beings and human life, and that the taxpayer dollars that were requested to go towards this research were going to be used to destroy those embryos. And the President believes that that was the moral line that he could not cross. However, what he did do -- and he was the first President to do -- was he funded federal taxpayer dollars to 21 stem cell lines that were already in existence. So that money was the first to go towards that.
In addition to that, the President has strongly encouraged other types of stem cell research, like adult stem cell and cord blood research. There is also no ban on private sector funding. I think that I see -- I see that reported in places where the President is accused of trying to stop or ban stem cell research, but that could not be farther from the truth. He's been supportive of it. And I realize that there are many people out there who believe that stem cell research could hopefully lead to cures for many different diseases, and the President hopes that that's true. And he's very encouraged that there are so many scientists who are out there working to create a body of research that can move forward on stem cell research without the destruction of human embryos.
Q: Is the President's mind at all -- has he had any second thoughts in light of what his own NIH Director said about how the limiting effect of his order about federal funding --
MS. PERINO: The President weighed this issue very carefully back in 2001, and has thought about it since. And he believes that that clear moral line that he established back in August of 2001 is a good place for the country to be. And he understands that there are people who might have different viewpoints, but he believes that federal taxpayer dollars, tens of millions of which comes from Americans who believe that that is a human embryo -- or a human life -- that their taxpayer dollars should not be used to destroy them.
Q: Follow on that?
MS. PERINO: Following on? Go ahead.
Q: Why does he think the Isakson version is any better, since it uses embryonic stem cells?
MS. PERINO: As I understand it, the Isakson bill would not destroy the embryo.
Q: I'm not sure that's exactly correct. Why does the President think it's all right to use some of these embryos that are considered non-viable? I mean, who decides?
MS. PERINO: I don't believe that that's accurate, but if I could -- let me just get you somebody that can talk to you a little bit more in an expert way, because there's a distinction there. But the President would not fund -- use federal taxpayer dollars to fund anything that would destroy an embryo.
Q: Can I just follow, Dana --
MS. PERINO: On stem cells?
MS. PERINO: Okay.
Q: Dana, like you said, we spend billions of dollars on health care in this country and medicines and all that. As you know that yoga has become a household name in America today, and President also spoke one time about this yoga. Can you --
MS. PERINO: The President does yoga?
Q: No, no, he spoke one time, somebody brought it to his attention. But my question is, that you think President can go beyond talking and he can endorse that -- yoga is free of any medicines and free of --
MS. PERINO: How about I say that the President endorses all sorts of exercises, depending on whatever anybody can and is willing to do.
Q: I'll try to follow that one. (Laughter.) Senator Reid said he wasn't going to a meeting where there are preconditions. How did you read that statement?
MS. PERINO: Well, I think it's a knee-jerk reaction that's unfortunate. I think that the President has extended a hand and that the immediate reaction is one of disappointment -- we're disappointed. I don't know how their conditions have changed at all, in terms of the President saying early on, about over a month ago, that he would veto the bill if it came to his desk in its present form. I don't know what they're thinking about, in terms of how they could change. I don't even know if they've coalesced around a single idea over on the Senate side. And so it's one of disappointment, but we have an open invitation and we hope that they show up.
Q: The discussion that you talk about that the President wants to have would be a discussion to reiterate his stance?
MS. PERINO: I think it's a chance for the President to reiterate his stance and to explain to the members why an arbitrary date for a withdrawal is basically mandating failure. And because he knows -- and the Democrats know -- that they don't have the votes to override the President's veto, that it's incumbent upon the Democrats, if they say that they want to fund the troops, to figure out a path forward to do that.
Q: Have any members actually accepted the invitation yet?
MS. PERINO: I don't think so.
Q: Dana, on another subject, the House Judiciary --
MS. PERINO: Oh, I hate it when you're looking at your Blackberry. (Laughter.)
Q: The House Judiciary Committee served its subpoena to Attorney General Alberto Gonzales, seeking documents relating to the firing of the U.S. attorneys. Are you aware of that? And would the White House support that?
MS. PERINO: I'm not aware of a subpoena. I do know that the Justice Department -- I know from personal experience, based on the press calls that I've gotten -- has been working very hard to turn over documents to be responsive to the Congress's requests, and so we'll have to take a look. I don't know what's different there.
Q: So you're not aware that the House Judiciary has issued a subpoena to the Attorney General seeking those documents that they haven't yet provided?
MS. PERINO: I think the Justice Department has been working very hard to be fully responsive to the request, as the President asked them to do. So I don't know what's new here and we'll have to check it out.
Q: Dana, in your statement this morning, this is not a negotiation -- was that one of your prepared talking points, was that just -- (laughter) -- and do you regret saying it?
MS. PERINO: What? You don't think that I can be spontaneous? No, I meant to say what I said.
Go ahead, Greg.
Q: Dana, on Iran, we heard from that country's President this week touting success or progress anyway in its nuclear capacity. We know that the White House has expressed concern about this kind of action before, but is there any alarm at the White House over the latest statement?
MS. PERINO: No, I think that our intelligence community makes those assessments, and Director McConnell from the DNI's office has spoken to them. I don't know -- I don't believe that they're beliefs or assessments have changed. I'd have to refer you over there.
What I can say is that the Iranians had several opportunities to take up the offer that is before them, if they suspend their uranium enrichment and reprocessing, that we can go back to negotiations. And we certainly hope that they would make the right choice. The Permanent 5-plus-1, those countries, we have shown that we can speak with one voice and speak strongly, and that we can continue to further isolate Iran if they decide to take the wrong path.
Q: The President has talked about weapons of mass destruction, of course, for a number of years. Has the Iranian threat reached the level of the Iraqi threat of a few years ago?
MS. PERINO: I don't know what you're trying to drive at there. I can reiterate for you that we are working diplomatically with our partners and our allies, and making sure that Iran does not achieve what its stated aim is, is to have a -- well, they haven't said that they -- they want a peaceful nuclear program, but we do believe that they are working towards a nuclear weapon and we are not going to allow that to happen.
Q: Supporters of Muqtada al Sadr held a large rally yesterday. And it's clear they want an Islamic state, not a democratic coalition. How does this administration hope to coopt them and bring them into the fold so that their views of how they want that country run can work in conjunction with the way that the President of Iraq wants it run?
MS. PERINO: Well, I think that's part of what Prime Minister Maliki has been working to do, which is to have political reconciliation within the country. There's no doubt there are several thousand people that rallied and said that they would like to have Americans leave. Look, we would like to leave, as well, but we want to do it when the conditions on the ground are right to do that, and when the Iraqis have the capability in order to protect their own citizens.
If we were to leave now, that vacuum would be filled by al Qaeda and the Shia insurgents, and the killing and bloodshed would no doubt increase, and then a safe haven would be created for al Qaeda in which to launch other attacks. So the concerns that we have and the reasons that we think it is so important that we get the troops the money that they need is so that we can help General Petraeus finish the mission that he was sent to do.
Go ahead, Joanie.
Q: Thank you. What is the White House's reaction to the Macau announcement this morning to unblock the North Korea funds? And, also, how can the White House be sure these funds will be used for humanitarian needs and how does the administration think this all plays into the six-party talks?
MS. PERINO: Well, we do think that it's important that within the context of the six-party talks that we believe that everyone is operating in good faith. And that money was released today, the $25 million. We have been assured that it is going to be used for humanitarian and education reasons.
I would remind you that it is the six-party talks which have provided the leverage now to make sure that we do not have a nuclear weapon in North Korea. And the allies that have spoken today are all holding very strong on that. So I think that as North Korea nears its deadline, that this step was a big one. And Chris Hill spoke to that earlier today. I'd refer you for more detail to his comments and to the Treasury Department.
Q: Thank you. I have two British questions I might ask if you'd take them -- does the U.S. know anything about the missing British reporter in Gaza? And can the U.S. help out through back channels to try to locate him?
MS. PERINO: I'd refer you to State Department on that one.
Q: Okay. And does the U.S. or the President have any opinion on the British servicemen selling their stories? Are Americans allowed to sell stories --
MS. PERINO: No, I haven't talked to him about it.
Q: Can -- perhaps you can look into it?
MS. PERINO: Jim, go ahead.
Q: Can we go back one more time to this notion of what a clean bill is? Now, not to negotiate, but to define it. If a bill shows up, stripped of the pork, but still has some kind of timetable in it, is that unacceptable to the President?
MS. PERINO: I'm not -- I know that would be great to get me to negotiate from here. I would refer you back to the position of the President --
Q: I don't want to negotiate. I want a definition.
MS. PERINO: He has said that an arbitrary timetable in which we send a save-the-date card to the Iraqis is unacceptable to him.
Q: So you say save-the-date? So you --
MS. PERINO: I stole that from Don Stewart. (Laughter.)
Q: I bet you just guaranteed yourself an appearance there. (Laughter.)
Q: I don't think that was Jon Stewart, I think it was Don Stewart. (Laughter.)
Q: And if you take the timetables out but keep the pork, then that's not acceptable either?
MS. PERINO: The President has said he would veto it based on the pork and the arbitrary timetables.
Q: So how are those not preconditions, then?
MS. PERINO: How is it not preconditions for them to say that they're going to keep them in?
Q: No, but the terms they're coming down to discuss and to say that the President set up preconditions.
MS. PERINO: We get -- all the time we get these questions of, why won't we just meet? And the President is saying, let's have a meeting, let's have a discussion. And I think that it would be -- it would be the right thing for both sides to do, to sit down and have a talk.
Q: Thank you.
Q: Dana --
MS. PERINO: I'll get you afterwards, Les.
MS. PERINO: I'm sorry.
END 1:16 P.M. EDT
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/273074