Press Briefing by George Stephanopoulos
The Briefing Room
12:55 P.M. EST
MR. STEPHANOPOULOS: Good afternoon. Everybody in the front row is smiling and happy.
The President is not going to return until this evening, so he will have no schedule in Washington today. And we hope he will just be back tomorrow and at work in the White House.
Q: Does that mean that his father-in-law's situation is very grave?
MR. STEPHANOPOULOS: No, there's no change. He'll just be back this evening.
Q: He'll be back this evening?
MR. STEPHANOPOULOS: Yes.
Q: What is the White House view of Senator Dole's suggestion that it might be wise to move the summit to Moscow because it would help Yeltsin in his not having to leave the country at such a difficult time.
MR. STEPHANOPOULOS: The President said on Saturday that he wants to go forward with the plans to meet with President Yeltsin in Vancouver on April 3rd and 4th. Yesterday, Russian Foreign Minister Kozyrev said the Russians also wanted to go forward with the summit in Vancouver on April 3rd and 4th, and we intend to continue to plan for that summit and we intend to go.
Q: But let me just ask you, if it became more difficult for Mr. Yeltsin to leave, would the President consider moving the summit to Moscow?
MR. STEPHANOPOULOS: Again, we have had no indications of any kind that there's a need to move the summit. We plan to go to Vancouver on April 3rd and 4th. That's what the President's proposed, that's what Foreign Minister Kozyrev has accepted as well, and we want to go forward.
Q: How does it complicate the question of aid?
MR. STEPHANOPOULOS: How does what complicate the question of aid?
Q: The situation there. What is your feeling at the moment of what impact it has on plans to design an aid package that has any validity or any hope of making any difference?
MR. STEPHANOPOULOS: Well, I think the situation reinforces the need to go forward with our aid package, to go forward with our program of supporting the reforms and the reformers in Russia.
Q: George, Yeltsin has just issued a decree putting newspapers, the radio and tv under his control. Is it consistent with your claim on Saturday that the steps he took were to defend democracy?
MR. STEPHANOPOULOS: I have not seen any reports on the decree, so I don't think I should comment on it until we see it.
Q: From what you said on Saturday you said that he had not dismissed Parliament, he had not suspended civil liberties, and he has not imposed presidential rule. But he is going to rule for a month without any control whatsoever of Parliament, how is it different from presidential rule? How do you define presidential rule?
MR. STEPHANOPOULOS: Well, as you know, he has not yet put forward the edicts. At this time there is a political impasse in Russia, there are political disputes. President Yeltsin has proposed to address that by taking the question to the people. We support that. We support the process of reform.
Q: But you said he has not imposed presidential rule. So, how would you describe presidential rule and how is it different from what he did?
MR. STEPHANOPOULOS: Well, he clearly has not imposed presidential rule. He has not dissolved the Parliament and he has not, to our knowledge, and in the statement on Saturday, suspended civil liberties. He has not gone farther and done the things that you suggest. Until we see reports on that, I can't comment.
Q: How important is that aspect of it -- the civil liberties, freedom of the press aspect? If that were removed, how would that affect U.S. support?
MR. STEPHANOPOULOS: Again, that's a hypothetical and I don't want to comment on it.
Q: How important is that aspect?
MR. STEPHANOPOULOS: The President said on Saturday that he considers civil liberties important and he expects that they will be respected.
Q: Has the United States government told the Yeltsin government that there are steps they could take that would undercut our support line beyond which they mustn't go?
MR. STEPHANOPOULOS: The President sent Yeltsin a message on Saturday which essentially tracked the message he gave to the American people and the world on Saturday. He has also sent a message to President Yeltsin expressing condolence over the death of his mother. Those are the messages sent from the President.
Q: But has the United States outlined some steps that Yeltsin could take that would undercut our support for him?
MR. STEPHANOPOULOS: The United States has set forward that we expect the process of reform to continue. We support the process of reform, as the President said in his statement on Saturday.
Q: George, what's your sense today of the nuclear control in Russia?
MR. STEPHANOPOULOS: No change.
Q: What's your sense today of where they're parking the tanks -- which side of the street?
MR. STEPHANOPOULOS: I have not heard anything on that.
Q: Are they still neutral as far as you know?
MR. STEPHANOPOULOS: As far as I know, yes.
Q: George, will there be a meeting with Kozyrev again? Is that set for tomorrow?
MR. STEPHANOPOULOS: It's still set. He's going to meet with Secretary Christopher tomorrow and the President on Wednesday.
Q: What would happen to an aid package if the opposition took over and Yeltsin was tossed out? I know it's an iffy question, but it's a very valid question. Have we passed the word at all to the opposition that aid would not be forthcoming if they reasserted communist rule?
MR. STEPHANOPOULOS: We haven't had any contacts of those kinds. We've sent a message to President Yeltsin, as I said, that tracked the statement the President had on Saturday.
Q: George, what happens if the constitutional court in Russia rules that Yeltsin's decrees are unconstitutional?
MR. STEPHANOPOULOS: As far as I know, the constitutional court met this morning and reached no decision whatsoever. Again, until they do, I don't know that I should comment on it.
Q: George, has the President spoken with former President Nixon recently about the situation?
MR. STEPHANOPOULOS: I don't think since President Nixon was here. I don't know that they've had any further follow-up discussion.
Q: You've made the point and the President's made the point several times of saying that the administration supports the process of reform. Does the administration consider the Parliament in Russia as an obstacle to that process, or an impediment to that process?
MR. STEPHANOPOULOS: I don't know if I want to get into characterizing either actions or institutions from this podium. But we do support the general thrust of reform set out by President Yeltsin. We believe he personifies that reform. We believe that he is dealing with the current impasse in an appropriate manner by taking it to the people.
Q: Did the President look at --
Q: The Prime Minister of Japan, Mr. Miyazawa, has suggested today to accelerate the G-7 summit in an early date instead of July.
MR. STEPHANOPOULOS: I'm sorry.
Q: Yes -- has suggest to reschedule to G-7 summit to an early date instead of July.
Q: Earlier date.
Q: And do you have in mind any new dates?
MR. STEPHANOPOULOS: As you know, the President has been looking for ways to speed up the G-7 process, including the possibility of a meeting with finance and foreign ministers maybe as early as April. We have not seen this proposal by Mr. Miyazawa. Obviously, it's something we'll take a look at.
Q: Has he seen -- has the President seen the Clinton -- I'm sorry, the Christopher speech?
MR. STEPHANOPOULOS: I believe he was faxed a draft in Little Rock.
Q: And he approved it?
MR. STEPHANOPOULOS: I don't know -- he does certainly support what Secretary Christopher is saying today in Chicago. He's just laying out the pillars of this administration's foreign policy, the need for the American people to be engaged in this effort as well, and also laying down the principles for our program towards Russia.
Q: George, is there a line that Yeltsin cannot cross if he wants to keep your support? And have you explained that to him clearly?
MR. STEPHANOPOULOS: President Yeltsin embodies reform. He is a reformer. We support him and the other reformers in Russia.
Q: I'm referring to maybe to civil liberties and some steps -- some further steps he could be forced to take in the following weeks. Would that be a reason for you to restore your support for him?
MR. STEPHANOPOULOS: The President obviously wants civil liberties to be respected to the extent they can.
Q: George, is there a reform process -- do you think the reform process in Russia has any future without Yeltsin?
MR. STEPHANOPOULOS: We support Yeltsin and other reformers. I mean, he right now is the leader of that reform process. That is not to say that there are not other reformers in Russia as well. But he is the leader of the reform process. He personifies the reform process.
Q: George, by saying that, are you leaving it open to endorsing another leader in Russia if he or she backs the same kind of reform Yeltsin does?
MR. STEPHANOPOULOS: We support President Yeltsin and the process of reform. We believe there are other reformers in Russia as well; but he, right now, is the leader of that reform process.
Q: So in other words, if Yeltsin seemed to sort of fall from power and someone else emerged who is also a backer of reform, I mean, it sounds you're leaving this more open and you're behind Yeltsin.
MR. STEPHANOPOULOS: No, that's a hypothetical question. Right now, President Yeltsin is the leader of the reform process. He personifies it. We support him. We also support the entire reform process and everybody in Russia who is a reformer.
Q: Do you have anything on the submarines?
MR. STEPHANOPOULOS: Just what came out of Defense this morning. We know that there was an incident, I believe, in routine operations in the Barents Sea. There was a bump, they accidentally collided with a Russian Navy submarine. I can give you the exact -- it occurred 105 nautical miles north of the Murman coastal region of the Kola Peninsula. Damage to the U.S. vessel was very minimal. Nobody was injured. The Russian submarine is also reported to be safe, and we've said that we regret the incident.
Q: It's our fault?
MR. STEPHANOPOULOS: We regret the incident. (Laughter.)
Q: On that subject, earlier on when the U.S. did not know that it was in fact a U.S. sub, and they were saying that apparently there was an accident and it was caused by the other foreign vessel, which was, in fact, the U.S. sub, and the Russian Navy had complained about it, saying this is getting excessive and there's all these submarines trolling the territorial waters and they're causing accidents -- I mean, does the White House have a reaction to that? Are we too often causing these accidents?
MR. STEPHANOPOULOS: I'm not sure about that. I know that there's been maybe one or two over the last year. The Navy is investigating this specific incident.
Q: Can you clarify -- can you confirm, rather, there will be, or it's the President's position that there should be a G-7 finance and foreign ministers' meeting after the summit, and would that take place presumably after the summit prior to April 25th?
MR. STEPHANOPOULOS: I don't know that we necessarily have a specific date in mind yet, but the President would think that would be a welcome proposal.
Q: And the goal would be to do this before the referendum, obviously, before April 25th?
MR. STEPHANOPOULOS: Again, I don't know the specific date, but we would like to go forward as soon as possible.
Q: Was there one scheduled already?
MR. STEPHANOPOULOS: I don't know that it's been scheduled, no. For the foreign and finance ministers.
Q: There was mention of the April 20th. Is it under consideration, or --
MR. STEPHANOPOULOS: Yes.
Q: I was wondering if you have any plans to accelerate the confirmation of Thomas Pickering as ambassador to Moscow. They haven't had an ambassador since November.
MR. STEPHANOPOULOS: We haven't, and unfortunately we were left with that situation because the previous ambassador did leave Russia last year. We have put forward Ambassador Pickering's name and we would like it dealt with as quickly as possible. I believe there were going to be discussions going on this week.
Q: Is the paperwork up there yet? I mean, isn't it still at the White House? The Senate says they're just sitting and waiting.
MR. STEPHANOPOULOS: Yes, I think we're going to have some meetings on it this week.
Q: Is it an FBI problem, or is it a White House problem?
MR. STEPHANOPOULOS: I'm not certain what the holdup is exactly, but I know that we're going to be discussing it this week.
Q: George, if we're waiting to see the outcome of the court decisions and the legislative decisions and we're not quite sure about the military --
MR. STEPHANOPOULOS: I didn't say we were waiting; we put out a statement of support for President Yeltsin and the reformers on Saturday. We are going forward and we're not going to comment on every different action that occurs between now and the plebiscite.
Q: But in some of these developments, you've said, well, we've heard the reports, we haven't seen the information. There seems to be some uncertainty. And with any level of uncertainty -- could you tell us how you can be so sure of the nuclear control, both in Russia and in the Ukraine as well?
MR. STEPHANOPOULOS: Again, we've had no indication that there's any change of any kind.
Q: Two questions. One is, has the departure of Bob Strauss complicated your efforts to deal with this crisis at the other end?
MR. STEPHANOPOULOS: I don't think so. We have a very senior and very good charge d'affaires, Jim Collins, in Russia who is handling this very well.
Q: Tom Collins -- (laughter.)
Q: Judy Collins.
Q: George, I've got a second question. In light of developments in the ex-Soviet Union, do you feel that you need to reassess the defense cuts that are not in train for the April lineby -line budget?
MR. STEPHANOPOULOS: No. At this point we're going to go forward with the defense budget as presented by President Clinton. We believe it meets the threats at this time. The President has said that if situations change, obviously you have to reconsider. That's the job of the Commander-in-Chief; but there's nothing at this point.
Q: George, can I follow up? Do you think a reassessment would strengthen you hand in asking Congress for more aid for the Soviet Union, for the ex-Soviet Union?
MR. STEPHANOPOULOS: Again, I don't think I should comment on reassessment unless we're going to make it.
Q: What do you think of Senator Nunn's suggestion that he may have several contingent amendments that he will try to attach to the budget resolutions -- contingent on inflation not going up, contingent upon making up for the $18 billion that was supposedly --
MR. STEPHANOPOULOS: Again, these are all directions that the President supports. We have not seen the specific amendments. But what essentially what our understanding of what Senator Nunn was saying yesterday is he just wants to make sure that the plans that we envision actually happen. There's not necessarily a problem with that, but that said, we haven't seen the specific amendments.
Q: One of these problems is with the baseline. That the Bush administration had suggested a certain number, I think it was $18 billion in cost savings which have never materialized and he doesn't want the Pentagon to have to eat that.
MR. STEPHANOPOULOS: Well, we have the O'Deen Commission studying that right now and we expect to see their report soon.
Q: George, what's the President's view about the situation in France following yesterday's election? I mean, with regard to Bosnia or Russia, what are you going to do, who are you going to deal with? Have you already sorted that out?
MR. STEPHANOPOULOS: Well, President Mitterrand is the head of state. We will continue to deal with President Mitterrand.
Q: And what about the incoming government?
MR. STEPHANOPOULOS: There is a government coming in. There have been parliamentary elections, but President Mitterrand remains the President, remains the head of state and we will continue to deal with him.
Q: And only with him?
MR. STEPHANOPOULOS: We will deal with the president as is appropriate to deal with the president.
Q: Why is the administration not reassessing proposed defense cuts right now? What more do you need than the specter of a restart of the Cold War or considering that Russia is in a state of flux at this point, what more do you need to reassess?
MR. STEPHANOPOULOS: Right now President Yeltsin is the leader of that country. He is leading the process of reform and we will continue to support that process. There is no indication that there's a return to the Cold War.
Q: But there is an indication that things are not smooth there now. What more do you need?
MR. STEPHANOPOULOS: Our defense budget is designed to meet real threats and threats as we perceive them. And that's what we're going to do. Right now there is no change in the threat.
Q: And you don't perceive a looming threat? I'm asking, isn't the possibility enough to stop and take a look at --
MR. STEPHANOPOULOS: The President has said that if circumstances change, he would reassess and that's what -- that's his job.
Q: So once the tanks start rolling, then he will reassess the defense --
MR. STEPHANOPOULOS: No, I didn't say that.
Q: At what point? I'm just trying to find out what's the point --
MR. STEPHANOPOULOS: I can't see into the future. I don't what the point is.
Q: George, who are some of these other reformers?
MR. STEPHANOPOULOS: There are elements of reform throughout the private sector. There are some reformers throughout the government, in the local councils, not necessarily the local Soviets, but where there is a reform process. Also the Russian people have come out in support of reform. They elected President Yeltsin, the first democratically-elected president of Russia 1,000
Q: Well, are there some prominent names that come to mind?
MR. STEPHANOPOULOS: I don't know that I'm going to get into the business of naming names.
Q: Has the charg? d'affaires been in touch with the Russian vice president?
MR. STEPHANOPOULOS: He's been in touch, I know, with Yeltsin's foreign policy, and I assume he's had a range of contacts, but I'm not familiar with every one.
Q: Direct contact. Has he had direct contact with him?
MR. STEPHANOPOULOS: He's had direct contact with President Yeltsin's foreign policy aide. I don't know beyond that. I just don't know all of his call list.
Q: Is there an aid package now assembled in Russia?
MR. STEPHANOPOULOS: I don't know -- when the President has the aid package, he'll announce it.
Q: George, in light of the changes in the --
MR. STEPHANOPOULOS: Obviously, we're working on it.
Q: George, in light of the developments in Russia, are you shifting the emphasis of the aid package to assistance that would get there more quickly, for example, than the constructional things you're looking at --
MR. STEPHANOPOULOS: Well, as Secretary Christopher will say this afternoon, the President has always envisioned aid that we try to focus directly on the Russian people. He'll have more to say on that this afternoon.
Q: Are you shifting your emphasis in any way?
MR. STEPHANOPOULOS: I don't know if there is any shift, necessarily, no.
Q: Does the President have anything on his agenda this week in terms of domestic policy or domestic initiatives, or this another week in which foreign affairs led by Russia are going to --
MR. STEPHANOPOULOS: I think that last week the President had a great step forward in his domestic package when his budget passed the House with flying colors. And we are going to be continuing to work with the Senate this week, pushing for both passage of the budget and the jobs program this week, if we can.
Q: Any specifics on that effort?
Q: Do you have enough votes for cloture any of those measures, do you believe?
MR. STEPHANOPOULOS: We'll have to go up to the Senate. We feel good about where we are right now. We're going to continue to press forward.
Q: Do you have enough votes for cloture? Or are you going to have to make changes if you don't have them?
MR. STEPHANOPOULOS: Right now we're pressing for the President's package as it stands, and we feel pretty good about it.
Q: George, does he have meetings scheduled --
Q: Any specifics on what you're going to do to get this through the Senate?
MR. STEPHANOPOULOS: We're going to continue to talk with the Senators. We've been trying to emphasize the importance of our investments program, the importance of the investment in jobs that the President has called for. And Howard Paster and the whole congressional team is up in the Senate now. The President, I'm certain, at some point will be making phone calls as well.
Q: Will he be going up to the Senate?
MR. STEPHANOPOULOS: I think there might be some meetings scheduled with Senators here. I don't know that he'll be going up to the Senate.
Q: Senator Kohl's been pushing his proposal that's sort of parallel to the proposal that Congressman Stenholm has pushed in the House. Does the White House regard that as something that would be impossible for you to accept, or is there some possibility of working out --
MR. STEPHANOPOULOS: There's no way we're going to accept Senator Kohl's amendment. We're going to fight it. It endangers our investments. And we intend to move forward with the President's package.
Q: Do you feel the same way about the Breaux-Boren proposals?
MR. STEPHANOPOULOS: We're looking at that. Right now the President would like to go forward with his program as quickly as possible. I think that Senator Breaux is obviously trying to be constructive, but we believe we should move forward with the full package now.
Q: Senator Kohl is not -- constructive?
MR. STEPHANOPOULOS: We're opposed to the Kohl amendment.
Q: George, while Russia occupies the attention of the world, a news report indicated that today was the worst bombing -- shelling of Sarajevo. Is there anything being done besides sending food and airplanes? Is the United States leading a team --
MR. STEPHANOPOULOS: As you know, there are discussions right now in the U.N. on enforcement of the no-fly zone. We want the no-fly zone enforced in Yugoslavia. We continue to have discussions at the U.N. and with our allies to ensure that.
Q: To change the subject a little bit, does the President still have confidence in FBI Director Sessions?
MR. STEPHANOPOULOS: As you know, the Attorney General is reviewing the report on FBI Director Sessions. The FBI Director has done an admirable job with the situation in Waco and we think he's done a good job there.
Q: Do you envision changing FBI directors anytime?
MR. STEPHANOPOULOS: Obviously, it's the President's prerogative to replace the FBI Director. We have no plans at this time, but Attorney General Reno is reviewing the report on FBI Director Sessions.
Q: When do you think she'll be through?
MR. STEPHANOPOULOS: I'm not sure.
Q: Some of the health care groups are suggesting that the White House is sending signals that May 3rd may not be the release date, that it may be pushed back to the detailed health care plan. Is that true?
MR. STEPHANOPOULOS: We would like to go forward on May 3rd.
Q: Is there any consideration to pushing it back now? Can you foresee circumstances under which you would?
MR. STEPHANOPOULOS: Again, I can't foresee every conceivable circumstance in the world, but we'd like to go forward on May 3rd.
Q: You'd like to, and you will -- under the current plan, correct?
MR. STEPHANOPOULOS: Yes, we'd like to and we will.
Q: And what about the review of the Truth Commission report? Has that been completed yet?
MR. STEPHANOPOULOS: It has not been completed. It's being done in the State Department.
Q: What is the question being posed as far as the administration is concerned? Is this continuing aid to El Salvador, continuing support of the Cristiani government? What is it that you're weighing here in your review?
MR. STEPHANOPOULOS: I think a lot of it is just to see our own internal procedures and to get a good sense of what happened over the last decade and, obviously, if the actions being taken in El Salvador are appropriate. But I don't know that it's necessarily directly tied to the aid program in El Salvador.
Q: George, is it still the President's intention to allow the rehiring of those air traffic controllers who went on strike 13 years ago?
MR. STEPHANOPOULOS: I have not seen -- we do not have yet an executive order out of the Labor Department, but it's still under review in the Labor Department.
Q: George, on the Supreme Court, can you tell us something about how the search for a new Justice will proceed?
MR. STEPHANOPOULOS: Probably not. (Laughter.)
Q: What division of labor is going to be between the White House and the Justice Department. Who's coordinating this and what the President expressed in the meeting Sunday about how he would like the process to go forward in terms of timing and everything else.
MR. STEPHANOPOULOS: As you know, the meeting Saturday, it was a very preliminary meeting. This is the President's decision, and he will be making it. There's no set timetable at this time. As you know, Justice White does not leave until June 30th. We are going forward now -- White House Counsel Bernie Nussbaum will obviously get in the business of reviewing backgrounds and background checks. I'm certain the President will talk to the Attorney General about it.
Q: Do you think it's more likely to take months than weeks?
MR. STEPHANOPOULOS: I just don't have a timetable of any kind.
Q: Do you have any reaction to the Perot presentation, the movement, the poll?
MR. STEPHANOPOULOS: Anything in support of real political reform and real change in Washington is something we welcome. But the American people want action and that's what we are working on in the Senate and the House right now. (Laughter.) I think Helen wants to go to lunch. (Laughter.)
Q: It's an automatic reflex. (Laughter.)
THE PRESS: Thank you.
END 12:58 P.M. EST
William J. Clinton, Press Briefing by George Stephanopoulos Online by Gerhard Peters and John T. Woolley, The American Presidency Project https://www.presidency.ucsb.edu/node/269362