Press Briefing by Dana Perino
White House Conference Center Briefing Room
12:48 P.M. EDT
MS. PERINO: Good morning. Good Friday afternoon, I'm sorry. It's been 53 days since the President requested funding for the troops. We sent up the budget on February 5th, and in addition to sending up the budget we sent the supplemental, as well. You may recall in years past we had been somewhat criticized by members of Congress that they wanted more information sooner, that they didn't like the supplementals coming sort of mid-year. And so Rob Portman, having heard that criticism, addressed that concern, and we released them at the same time, on February 5th. And every day that the Congress fails to act on this request causes our military hardship and impacts readiness. And you heard from General Pace on that yesterday.
The President was surprised to learn that Congress went on vacation today, and that the House didn't bother to appoint any conferees in which to help try to reconcile the differences between the Senate and the House bills. And so I don't know how much work is going to be able to get done while they're away.
By the way, yesterday Peter Baker asked a good question about the Senate bill. I did send out an update, but let me just remind you that for those of you who think that the Senate bill is non-binding, but the House bill is binding -- that those are two major differences -- the Senate bill does mandate withdrawal after 120 days, and it would not even allow for reinforcements. And so I think that means that the terrorists know that on day 121 there will be one less American soldier fighting, and that will be something that they have been working for for a long time. They believe that when the going gets tough, the Americans get going.
That's what they've been forecasting for a while, if you look back to the letters between Zarqawi and Zawahiri, that that's the -- that was their belief, that in Beirut and Somalia we left when it got tough. And so, taken all that, the President does hope that the Congress can just go ahead, get this bill up to his desk so that he can veto it, and then we can move forward and get a funding bill that the President can sign.
Q: I want to go back over some ground that I think you were trying to clarify a little bit this morning. You said that you felt like some of your comments yesterday had been misinterpreted or stretched a little bit. I guess what I want to ask is, the comments you made yesterday made it sound like the White House's view towards the Attorney General is, this is a mess and he needs to clean it up; we support him while he does that, but he needs to clean up this mess, which is slightly different than "we have full confidence in him, we want him to stay no matter what."
MS. PERINO: The reason I felt that I had been maybe misinterpreted is because I did say the President has full confidence in him, and some of the -- I heard someone said that I had tepid support of the Attorney General. That's not true. In fact, I talked to the President again this morning, after the gaggle. We had a chance to talk with him, and he does have 100 percent confidence in the Attorney General.
And, yes, indeed, the Justice Department has work to do, and the President has said that one of the biggest things -- one of the most important things they need to do is start with the document production, which they turned over thousands of documents, and as they find more they turn them over -- I believe that they have largely completed that now -- and that the Attorney General does need to continue to talk to members of Congress. And he can do that in a variety of ways. He can do it by telephone or by letter, and by certainly testifying. As you all know, Congress is going to be out for -- the Senate is going to be out for a week, and the House for two weeks, and his first hearing is scheduled for April 17th.
Q: But it does sound like the White House is reserving judgment, saying you need to go and explain yourself, and the unsaid -- and the --
MS. PERINO: Oh, I --
Q: -- the continuation of that is, if you don't, there might be consequences.
MS. PERINO: No, I think that the President has confidence that the Attorney General can overcome these challenges. And I think that you can full confidence in somebody and believe that they have -- still have work to do and believe that they're going to get that work done.
Q: And can you rule out that he would have any prospective candidates either to Camp David, or down to the ranch next week?
MS. PERINO: I believe I can rule that out, yes.
Q: Do you think the President is risking looking out of touch on the Gonzales situation? This is normally a situation where you hear Republicans, senators, congressmen step out in support of somebody who's embattled.
MS. PERINO: To the contrary, I think that the --
Q: And it's been very silent.
MS. PERINO: To the contrary, I think the Senate Democrats are the ones who could look out of touch. They have made such a spectacle of this. They have wanted to have the show trials, they have drug this out, they continue to make demands, whether moving the goal posts in terms of what they've asked for for the administration. I don't know how we could have been any more forthcoming, and still been within the bounds of the presidential prerogatives.
The Justice Department has said that they will testify, they've turned over documents, and then for our part, we said that we would turn over documents from -- between the White House and outsiders, and have four close advisors of the President testify. So I think if anyone looks out of touch, it's the Senate Democrats because they spend so much time on this, and not -- nothing else is being worked on. They're not funding the troops, they're not working on immigration, they're not working on education or energy or any of the other things that the American people care about.
Q: With the possible exception of Orrin Hatch, can you name a Republican who has publicly supported --
MS. PERINO: I'm not going to get into -- I'm not going to get into list making.
Q: But, I mean, this speaks to the point that there is nobody who supports the Attorney General in the Republican -- in the Republican Senate or --
MS. PERINO: I think that you've heard -- I think that you've heard members of Congress say that they want to hear from the Attorney General, and they're going to have an opportunity to do that on April 17th.
Q: -- doesn't mean that they support him?
MS. PERINO: Well, they said -- they have legitimate questions. And we have said that the Attorney General needs to be able to address their concerns, and that's what he is going to do.
Q: But it's no secret there are Republicans all over town who are shaking their head saying, why has the President so pugnaciously dug in on this?
MS. PERINO: There hasn't been evidence of any -- of anything improper or wrongdoing in the decision for the Justice Department to recommend the replacement of eight U.S. attorneys who serve at the pleasure of the President. And that's why the President continues to have confidence in the Attorney General that they -- that he runs a great department, they have wonderful employees who work there, they are moving forward on numerous corruption cases and helping prevent child exploitation.
And I just can't see how having show trials up on Capitol Hill would be any more out of touch with what the President is doing, which is getting on with the business of the day for the American people.
Q: One follow on that. Do you characterize testimony in which the Chief of Staff of the Attorney General disputes the Attorney General's explanation as a show trial?
MS. PERINO: No, I'm talking about overall in terms of the spectacle. I think that this has been drug on for a week --
Q: Is that part of the spectacle?
MS. PERINO: Well, look -- no, I didn't say that. I'm talking about -- we've been talking about this for weeks, and we have been working to try to get them the information that they need and get these requests in. The Attorney General, his office, Office of Public Affairs, issued a statement last night talking about how what he had said is that he was not involved in the day-to-day deliberations about evaluations regarding U.S. attorneys, that he had delegated that, and that he was periodically updated on it.
And that is consistent with what he said before, and I think that that's where people should try to take a step back and look at the -- look at the full picture.
Q: Do you think that Kyle Sampson's testimony is consistent with what the Attorney General had to say about this?
MS. PERINO: The Attorney General worked to clarify his statements from the March 13th press conference in the interview that he did this week, in which he said that he periodically got updated from time-to-time, and I believe that's what Kyle Sampson said yesterday.
Q: Dana, there are several -- you addressed some of this this morning, but there are several veterans groups calling this -- this event at Walter Reed a photo op. What's the response to that?
MS. PERINO: I think that's an unfortunate characterization. I think that any of you who have had an opportunity -- and I've been very fortunate to have been able to do a couple of times -- actually, a little bit -- maybe four -- to go with the President to go and see wounded soldiers. And there is no more personal moment that he has, and it's one of the -- one of the memories that I cherish the most of working for the President, because you see his gratitude, and they share hugs, and they share laughter, they share tears. And these are very personal moments.
We worked hard to find time on the President's schedule where he could spend three hours up there, which he's going to do today, visiting not just the patients, but the workers who -- the medical workers and the staff up there that provide the support to the soldiers.
And in addition to that, the President is going to make a speech. I would remind you that when this first came to light, the President said, I want to shine a bright light on this, I want to make sure we leave no stone unturned, I want to make sure that we are doing what we need to immediately at the Defense Department to have accountability, and the Veterans Affairs Department to make sure we're doing what we can immediately.
And in addition to that, he announced that Bob Dole and Donna Shalala would head up a commission to look at the long-term needs of our wounded -- wounded soldiers coming back from Afghanistan and Iraq.
So I think that characterization is unfortunate, given all of that history and given that the President is so committed.
Q: Is the President satisfied with the immediate action has been taken? A lot of criticism was set up -- was setting up commissions takes a long time, but there was --
MS. PERINO: No, I think that the Secretary of Defense and Secretary Nicholson worked very hard to get immediate action done. The commission that the President is talking about is one that is looking for long-term, because these soldiers who are so bravely fighting today, and many of them who are getting -- who are wounded in battle are going to need our support and care for years to come. And so we want to make sure that we have all of that, including the mental health aspects of it.
Q: Dana, you're saying basically because of scheduling? That's why it's taken the President so long --
MS. PERINO: What I'm saying, Elaine, is that the President immediately took action. And I don't think that anyone could disagree with that. The fact that the President is going up there and spending three hours today I think is significant.
Q: But in terms of why he didn't go sooner. Why didn't he go?
MS. PERINO: You guys are asking me to answer a question that -- I just don't know if it's answerable. What I can tell you is that the President immediately took action. His Cabinet took action. He was very pleased that Secretary Gates took the action he did to hold those accountable that needed to be held accountable. And then Secretary Nicholson moved forward to make sure that they canvassed all across the country to make sure that immediate needs were getting taken care of.
And in addition to that, we're looking at the long-term care needs. And I don't think that any veterans group could disagree with the commitment of this President to make sure that these problems are taken care of in the near term, and for the long term, because we know it's going to be a long haul for these soldiers.
Q: Going back to the Attorney General for a minute. You said that Republicans have legitimate questions, certainly, but at the same time, it sounds like you're saying Democrats --
MS. PERINO: Wait a minute, I didn't say -- no, I -- I think that all members of Congress have legitimate questions. I wasn't -- that wasn't in --
Q: But on the Hill, Democrats who want to ask questions in the form of hearings, then you're saying that's a spectacle?
MS. PERINO: No, I think that some of their language and some of their rhetoric has been over the top. I think they have legitimate questions, and I think those questions can be legitimately answered. And I would just respectfully submit that we have worked very hard, from the Department of Justice standpoint and the White House, in order to be accommodating.
Q: But I think their argument would be, when you have a Monica Goodling saying she's going to take the 5th, that there's not an openness there that allows that conversation --
MS. PERINO: I'm pretty certain that the lawyers who are also members of Congress, and senators, up on Capitol Hill, who understand the Constitution far better than I do, would understand that everyone has a right under the Constitution to invoke the 5th Amendment. And I'm not here to judge her decision, and I would refer questions about that to her attorney or to herself.
Q: Dana, the Speaker of the House is traveling to Syria next week. Wondering what the White House's view on that is.
MS. PERINO: Well, as you know, we do not encourage -- in fact, we discourage members of Congress to make such visits to Syria. This is a country that is a state sponsor of terror, one that is trying to disrupt the Siniora government in Lebanon, and one that is allowing foreign fighters to flow into Iraq from its borders. And so we don't think it's productive to go to Syria and try to -- well, I don't know what she's trying to accomplish. I don't believe that anyone in the administration has spoken to her about it. But in general we do discourage such trips.
Q: So specifically on this one -- this will be the highest-ranking U.S. official to go to Syria since the Hariri assassination, even before that, and apparently she's going to meet with President Assad. Would you have a specific message to the Speaker of the House about meeting with President Assad at a time when the administration has even withdrawn our ambassador from Damascus?
MS. PERINO: Well, again, I don't know if anyone has spoken to the Speaker. I do think that, as a general rule -- and this would go for Speaker of the House Pelosi and this apparent trip that she is going to be taking -- that we don't think it's a good idea. We think that someone should take a step back and think about the message that it sends, and the message that it sends to our allies. I'm not sure what the hopes are to -- what she's hoping to accomplish there. I know that Assad probably really wants people to come and have a photo opportunity and have tea with him, and have discussions about where they're coming from, but we do think that's a really bad idea.
Q: Can I just come back to the Iraq statement?
MS. PERINO: Sure.
Q: Is Congress irresponsible for going on vacation right now? Should they come back early? Should the President be asking them to?
MS. PERINO: Well, I think that that's a judgment that they're going to have to make. We believe that the troops need their funding. They've had 53 days to contemplate it. Department of Defense Secretary Gates and General Pete Pace have told them that there are very real consequences happening today because they don't have this money. And so if the Speaker is traveling on these international -- if the Speaker is going on an international trip, I don't know how many other members of Congress are doing the same. But I would hope that their hearts are in the right place, and that they would want to make sure that at least they're appointing conferees to have discussions during this recess. And apparently the House didn't appoint conferees before they left.
Q: Dana, normally when a congressional leader goes on a trip, no matter what party they're in, they consult with the State Department. Were there any consultations between her and --
MS. PERINO: I don't know. I just learned about this trip right before I came out here. We'll check. Our initial check was that nobody was aware of any discussions, but we'll confirm and let you know.
Q: Do you know, did anyone from the White House try to dissuade her from going on this trip?
MS. PERINO: As far as I know, we just found about it. I just found about it.
Q: And one on the U.S. attorneys, too, please. The past couple of days you've mentioned all these other vehicles that Gonzales could use to communicate with Congress. Are there any plans -- you've listed them, but are there any concrete plans for him to make individual lobbying calls or visits with anyone --
MS. PERINO: I'd have to refer you over to Department of Justice to get an update on their plans. I know that the Attorney General is up in Boston today, and he did have a press availability. It was happening as we were walking over here, so I'm not sure if they made any -- if the Attorney General made any statements in answering that question in terms of specific plans. But I'd have to refer you over there for now.
Q: How do you think this is going to play out between now and when he testifies?
MS. PERINO: Well, I would hope that if the decision is -- if the decision has been made by the Democrats that the hearing is going to be held on April 17th, that people would respectfully wait until having a chance to hear that testimony. But, again, the Attorney General may decide to make some more phone calls, or maybe have more media availabilities in order to get this information out.
Q: And what's been over the top? You've used that phrase --
MS. PERINO: I think some of the rhetoric in terms of claiming that there was wrongdoing or falsehoods, or that -- especially I think one of the things that's been over the top is a suggestion where there is no evidence that there was political interference in terms of preventing public corruption cases from moving forward. I think that's definitely over the top.
Q: Dana, two for you. First, do you have an update on the U.S.-South Korea trade situation?
MS. PERINO: Not since this morning, when I was able to tell you that the talks were not going well. Maybe -- we might know something by the end of the day.
Q: Okay. And the second one is, you repeatedly called the Democrats' approach to this, show trials. What then -- how would you describe the way the Iranians are treating the British soldiers, sailors, who have been taken?
MS. PERINO: Look, Tony Blair has made his comments and we strongly stand behind him. We believe that Iran should make the decision to immediately and unconditionally release the 15 British soldiers that are being held there in Iran. We believe, as Tony Blair has said, that the British soldiers were in Iraqi waters and that they need to be returned immediately -- not only the soldiers be returned, but their -- the British equipment, as well.
Q: Do you have a response then to the specific -- to the stage management of this, where you're now seeing confessions from -- or alleged confessions from British sailors on television; they've been shown blindfolded, captive --
MS. PERINO: Well, it's certainly a concern, and we share the very serious concerns of the -- that the British have commented on, and the United Nations now has made a statement, as well. And I think that anybody looking at those British soldiers who are asked to make those statements, I can't imagine what their families are going through. It must be very hard for them.
Q: Are we closer right now to an armed confrontation, armed conflict at all because of what's happened?
MS. PERINO: There's no indication of that, no. I believe that we -- everyone believes that it can be solved diplomatically.
Q: Are these sailors and Marines hostages?
MS. PERINO: I believe that's how Tony Blair has referred to them, yes.
Q: On immigration, can you take a second to explain the President's modifications to his proposal, how he thinks it would make it more workable, and perhaps fairer all the way around in terms of the treatment of illegals?
MS. PERINO: Well, remember in the State of the Union, the President said that this was one of the priorities that he has for this year. And so we have been working with Republicans and talking to them about how to get some more cohesion there, in order to then go to the Democrats and start working on a bill. There are discussion points that are underway right now, and I think what the President stands firm on are the principles that were laid out, which is we must have better border enforcement; we have to have better interior enforcement -- that includes work site enforcement -- we have to make sure that a temporary worker program can be put in place so that these people who want to come over and work can do so, and not live in the shadows; and then there has to be some way, without amnesty and without animosity, to allow people to figure out a way to be able to be in America legally.
And so we are working with Capitol Hill, but we're optimistic that we're going to be able to make some headway.
Q: Can you explain just in general, quickly, what the adjustments are that the President is making to the --
MS. PERINO: I think I'll decline to do that from here, since there are discussion points and nothing concrete, but I think we are making some progress. And there's a range of issues -- it's a very complicated matter, and there's lots of different strings that you can pull on in different areas. And so I can tell you that there are a lot of people in the administration who are working full-time on it, and Scott Stanzel, in our office, is handling those day-to-day questions.
Q: Just to clarify, in terms of what Chertoff and Gutierrez have been promoting on the Hill, the President has totally been briefed on that and signed off on the proposals?
MS. PERINO: The President is kept updated on the discussions that are ongoing with the administration and the discussions with the Republicans, and then the work to talk with the Democrats in order to see if we can get some resolution. So he's regularly updated.
Q: And one quick question on the attorneys. Has there been a schedule in the mind of Mr. Fielding about when he might be able to respond to Mr. Conyers and Mr. Waxman with their outstanding questions related to email policy, a whole host of things, getting documents that aren't related to the interviews --
MS. PERINO: I haven't talked to Fred about that. I know that he has received the letter and we'll respond when we can.
Q: Do you have any idea?
MS. PERINO: I don't, but we can check with Fred.
Q: How can we have confidence in the President's 100 percent support for Secretary Gonzales, the Attorney General, when he also had support for Mr. Rumsfeld, 100 percent, right up to the time that he was fired or resigned?
MS. PERINO: What I can tell you is I spoke to the President this morning and he has -- the Attorney General has the President's full confidence.
Q: And going back to something you said this morning when we were talking about his testimony for the 17th, you mentioned that the committee could ask him to testify earlier than that. But it's also a two-way street; if he wants to testify earlier, he could also approach the committee, or you could suggest --
MS. PERINO: No. The Democrats are, as we all know, they run Capitol Hill now and they run the schedules, and they made the invitation for the date that they made it. What I was saying, as well, was that I had seen a report that the Democrats had said if he wanted to come testify earlier, that he could -- but then when I checked with Department of Justice Legislative Affairs, they said they had not heard from the committee on that.
Q: Two quick questions. One, U.S. always considers Saudi Arabia the greatest supporter and friend for the United States and an ally. And even the United States and the international community tolerated their supporting for terrorism and funding around the world in the name of charity. Today Saudi King is accusing the United States and the international community as far as the situation in Iraq and Afghanistan and Palestine is concerned, rather than condemning terrorism that they are supporting --
MS. PERINO: What's the question, Goyal?
Q: So how does President feel that his friend is accusing the United States, rather than condemning terrorism, that we are fighting terrorism?
MS. PERINO: Well, the United States and Saudi Arabia do have a close and cooperative relationship. And we've worked very closely with them since 9/11. Sean McCormack yesterday said that through diplomatic channels they were reaching out to the King in order to clarify. And so I'll have to refer you to Sean or to the State Department.
Q: Another international question -- how the President feel that Washington Post and the Washington Times have been reporting for weeks -- also CNN, special reports that there's still madrasas are there in Pakistan and they're being trained militantly and in terrorism? And also, ongoing massive protests against the military government -- how does the President feel about this? Is he worried about it?
MS. PERINO: The President believes that President Musharraf is working very hard in order to keep terror from leaving Pakistan and in order to defeat the enemy who is living within Pakistan, as well.
I see Jim looking at his Blackberry -- that can't be good. (Laughter.)
Q: Two questions from the Blackberry.
MS. PERINO: Two questions on the Blackberry? Well, Les isn't here, so I guess you can have two. (Laughter.)
Q: Now, is that necessary? (Laughter.)
MS. PERINO: Well, I looked out and he wasn't here.
Q: Are they going to be that good?
Q: Okay, this one is for the network.
MS. PERINO: From WorldNet Daily? (Laughter.)
Q: I can't imagine they'd have somebody they'd want asking questions less than they'd want me asking questions for the WorldNet Daily.
Apparently, Alberto Gonzales says now, in Boston, he did not recall being involved in talks on dismissing individual federal prosecutors -- which, I suppose --
MS. PERINO: That's what he's said before.
Q: Well, it would counter the direct testimony given yesterday.
MS. PERINO: But the way I took the testimony yesterday was that the AG periodically got updates about the process, and that's what Kyle said yesterday. And the AG has said that before.
Q: Secondly, I just want to clarify what you said at the beginning about the President being surprised that Congress went on vacation.
MS. PERINO: No, it was surprise that they did not appoint conferees before they left.
Q: Right, and I think you may have answered this before, but I just want to make sure I got it for the record. Why not call them back?
MS. PERINO: I think -- I think that would be quite a dramatic step. I think that this is -- if the Congress --
Q: It's a dramatic situation.
MS. PERINO: Well, I'm not -- I'm not going to rule it in or out as we go along the way, but there's been no -- I haven't heard any discussion of that outside of this room. But what we do believe is that if the members are serious, as they say they are, that they want to support the troops, and they want to fully fund the troops, then they have an opportunity to do so.
Q: But he won't call them back?
MS. PERINO: I've heard -- I've not heard that discussed outside of people asking that question in this room.
Q: Thank you.
Q: And he said April 15th is when the money starts to run out -- why wouldn't he call them back?
MS. PERINO: General Pace said that actually, money has started running out, and they -- well, they've started to make some changes and adjustments, as of yesterday. I refer you to that testimony.
Q: Why doesn't he, then, call them back?
MS. PERINO: I think that if -- again, you all are asking me to speculate on something that I haven't heard discussed anywhere else. I think that the members have a responsibility to the troops and to their constituents to do their jobs.
Q: Okay, thank you.
MS. PERINO: Thank you.
END 1:12 P.M. EDT
* four close advisors of the President be interviewed.
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/273567