Press Briefing by George Stephanopoulos
The Briefing Room
3:31 P.M. EST
MR. STEPHANOPOULOS: I just want to limit this to the response to the judge's ruling today if we could.
The President is very gratified by the court's decision today. The court has given its stamp of approval to everything the Health Care Task Force has done and everything that the Health Care Task Force plans to do. So as I said, we're gratified by the decision. We intend to go with the plans that we originally had to have the working groups to meet and to have the task force have a meeting before its work is completed. And of course, we will give full notice before that meeting of the Health Care Task Force.
I would point just in the interest of trying to correct any misperceptions that might be out there -- the Health Care Task Force has not yet met, so there is no violation of the law in any way. There has not been violation of the law. And we fully intend to, before there is a meeting of the full task force, to give notice.
Q: It is remarkable in light of what the judge said, though. The judge said that he didn't like disagreeing with the administration. I take it from your standpoint that he didn't disagree with the administration in any respect.
Q: interpretation of what the judge's ruling is?
MR. STEPHANOPOULOS: Well, the judge's ruling as far as we can tell -- he has, first of all and perhaps most importantly, dismissed any of the plaintiff's charges with respect to the working groups. I would point you, first of all, to page 33 of the judge's ruling where he says -- do I have it in front of me -- from the order -- I'm afraid I don't have the order. But he has dismissed it with respect to the working groups in total. The working groups can continue to give their advice to the President as they have always given it.
And he said -- and I quote -- "All claims based on the interdepartmental working groups are dismissed pursuant to Federal Rules, page 12, for failing to state a claim upon which relief may be granted."
At the same time, he also said that the task force -- that any application of FACA to the task force with regard to its giving direct advice to the President is also unconstitutional. So the task force ability to give direct advice to the President is completely and totally protected and it can't be interfered with at all. And I would again quote from page 22: "With respect to the meetings at which the task force formulates its recommendations for the President, the balance weighs in favor of the President. The President's interest in confidentiality is particularly present as the task force directly advises the President as to what legislation he should propose. And congressional interest in opening these meetings is obviated by plaintiff's opportunities to address the task force in Congress."
Q: George, is the President also gratified that this ruling essentially guts the FACA?
MR. STEPHANOPOULOS: Not at all. I mean, I think what we're gratified by is that the Health Care Task Force can continue to proceed with its meetings and with its work as planned.
Q: But the larger issue as this applies to all other federal advisory committee acts, and essentially no other federal advisory committee act now can meet to discuss recommendations on a constitutional basis.
MR. STEPHANOPOULOS: As long as it's getting its information -- performing its information gathering functions, they can meet. So that's not true.
Q: No, I said to make recommendations. That's the distinction the judge drew, between information gathering and making recommendations.
MR. STEPHANOPOULOS: And the President has an interest in making sure the advice he receives from his advisors is protected and they can act with full candor.
Q: Do you believe that this applies to all other advisory committees?
MR. STEPHANOPOULOS: I don't know that I can speak to that at this time. We've just received the ruling and this is very preliminary. But as far as the working of the Health Care Task Force, the Health Care Task Force work can go on as we've always planned it to go on.
Q: George, did the administration interpret the judge's language regarding direct advice to the President as meaning that when the President is present and being advised by the task force, that those proceedings are protected but that the Health Care Task Force meeting outside of the President's presence is another matter?
MR. STEPHANOPOULOS: Oh, no, not at all. It shouldn't be limited at all to situations where the President is present.
Q: None of us has a copy of the ruling, but we have seen quotes from it in which the judge notes that he disagrees with the administration on certain key points in this case. Would you explain what those disagreements are and what they mean?
MR. STEPHANOPOULOS: I think the disagreement is limited to the very narrow point of whether or not the First Lady is an outside advisor or a government employee under the law.
Q: And you disagree on that?
MR. STEPHANOPOULOS: Yes, we continue to contend --
Q: Are you going to appeal?
MR. STEPHANOPOULOS: I'm not sure that it's necessary. We're going to look at that and we have to review the case more closely.
Q: Repeatedly, in explaining why the suit was groundless here, you cited your interpretation which was that under the meaning of the statute the First Lady is not covered. The judge has now said she is and you guys say that you won on all counts.
MR. STEPHANOPOULOS: We continue to believe that, but it just doesn't have any practical effect. The practical effect is that the judge is saying that the work of the task force is protected because FACA is unconstitutional with regard to giving direct advice to the President. It just doesn't have any practical effect.
Q: Are you saying that the task force can now meet behind closed doors, whether the President is there or not, to consider these options because they are eventually for the purpose of advising the President?
MR. STEPHANOPOULOS: Providing direct advice to the President, yes.
Q: What if he's not there?
MR. STEPHANOPOULOS: It doesn't matter. It has no bearing whatsoever. The only time it has to be open is when it's in this information-gathering, fact-finding stage, and we intend to have a meeting which we'll take testimony, and I would point out that the plaintiffs will have a full opportunity to present their testimony to the task force.
Q: In your filings, or in the judge's rulings, since, as Brit says, we haven't seen it, did you define informationgathering or advising the President, or did the judge -- it would seem that the ruling would turn on that.
MR. STEPHANOPOULOS: Again, when we're discussing recommendations to the President, it is completely protected, according to the judge's ruling.
Q: Discussing or giving?
MR. STEPHANOPOULOS: Discussing. When you're just in the process of developing recommendations for the President as opposed to taking in information from outside groups, that is completely protected.
Q: You're saying that all the deliberations, because the President is the ultimate beneficiary, that the judge has now ruled that all these deliberations -- deliberations, not fact-finding -- may go forward behind closed doors?
MR. STEPHANOPOULOS: Yes. Yes.
Q: That's your interpretation?
MR. STEPHANOPOULOS: Yes.
Q: Are you saying the first Health Care Task Force meeting will be a meeting that has no information-collecting, it will just be a recommendation meeting and, therefore, it's okay for it to be closed?
MR. STEPHANOPOULOS: No. I'm saying -- first of all, again, let's get down to facts -- there has been no meeting of the task force. The working groups have been meeting, and they are completely and totally protected by the judge's ruling. It is completely dismissed. And any charge against the working groups is completely dismissed by this judge's ruling.
Q: But when you have this first meeting of the task force, what will the ground rules be?
MR. STEPHANOPOULOS: I don't know about the first meeting, but we intend to have a public meeting of the task force, and we will give the appropriate notice, and plaintiffs along -- will have the opportunity to present testimony to the task force.
Q: George, your weekling compilation of documents say that Clinton met with the task force on February 7th.
Q: At a meeting -- when it held a meeting, when it met on February 7th. That's a Federal Register document.
MR. STEPHANOPOULOS: I'm not sure if it was the full task force; it might have been a group of his health care advisors. I don't know that there was any meeting of the task force. The task force is not --
Q: It says, met with the presidential task force --
MR. STEPHANOPOULOS: It might have been a mistake. There has been no meeting of the task force.
Q: George, there is a quote on the wires that says the judge -- quote -- "took no pleasure in determining that one of the first acts taken by a new President is in direct violation of a statute enacted by Congress." What does that mean?
MR. STEPHANOPOULOS: Well, I'm not sure. It would have been -- is a violation if the task force meets, but the task force has not met. And we fully intend to comply with the rulings of the judge in terms of having a public notice before a public meeting of the task force to gather information.
Q: But are you saying, what, the judge misspoke or miswrote? I don't understand.
MR. STEPHANOPOULOS: Again, there has not been any meeting of the task force. I mean, there's certainly the potential, but there has not been a meeting of the task force.
Q: George, are you juggling legal semantics here, because the working groups --
MR. STEPHANOPOULOS: Not at all.
Q: the working groups -- (laughter) -- the working groups work for the task force, and they are, in fact, are they not in the process now of gathering information?
MR. STEPHANOPOULOS: The working groups are in the process of preparing recommendations for the President.
Q: And to prepare that they're gathering information. I mean, it just seems --
MR. STEPHANOPOULOS: But the working groups are completely protected. The President has the right to get advice through his staff from across the country, from anyone he chooses to get advice from. That is separate from the task force. The working groups -- this does not apply in any way whatsoever to the working groups. That is what the judge has said very clearly. It just doesn't apply.
Q: So are you using the statement that the task -- why hasn't the task force net then? Is it to avoid this kind of --
MR. STEPHANOPOULOS: We're going along as we always planned to go along. The task force is simply the supervisory -- the ultimate body for recommending to the President. But the working groups are really where all the nuts and bolts work gathering information and drafting the legislation is done. And that is always how it was contemplated. That is how the structure was set up and the judge has given his sanction to the workings of the working groups today.
Q: But you're saying that even if a working group is engaged in information gathering that it's protected by the judge's ruling, so you are claiming protection from the spirit of having open meetings by calling it a working group and saying it's protected.
MR. STEPHANOPOULOS: Well, let's get some things straight here first of all.
Q: this judge's ruling will have no effect whatever --
MR. STEPHANOPOULOS: No practical effect on the task force at all.
Q: Do you think the judge might be a little surprised to learn that -- that that's your position, that he entered this order, declared himself to be sorry to have to disagree with the President, and declared illegal one of the President's --
MR. STEPHANOPOULOS: I mean I can't -- I don't know his state of mind but I don't think so, no.
Q: George, I mean, does it not strike you that there may be something peculiar and perhaps a bit evasive about the interpretation you're making here when you get this frontal language from the judge about the violation of the law and you're saying, hey, no --
MR. STEPHANOPOULOS: I think the judge's language is very clear. He draws a distinction in the task force between their advisory capacity for the President and between their informationgathering functions for the President. The information gathering is intended, as he says, to be in public. It will be in public. At the same time, the judge has found that FACA is -- it is unconstitutional with regards to direct advice to the President.
Q: I know, but what you're saying is that direct advice to the President does not constitute actually saying something to the President, conveying to him a memo or meeting with him, it constitutes any meeting that might be for the ultimate purpose of creating advice which would someday, somehow be passed on to him. Correct?
MR. STEPHANOPOULOS: Yes, as -- then that's separate from the information gathering.
Q: Is there any imaginable act that this task force could commit, meeting it could hold that you think would be covered by this judge's order?
MR. STEPHANOPOULOS: Absolutely.
Q: What, pray tell, would that be?
MR. STEPHANOPOULOS: In a meeting where we gather public testimony from interest groups, from the plaintiffs, in this case; from anybody else who has an interest in presenting --
Q: So you're saying that hearings, that if it holds some hearings, they would be covered?
MR. STEPHANOPOULOS: Absolutely. And they will be public.
Q: But the meetings as he describes them are not covered?
MR. STEPHANOPOULOS: No, public meetings where we gather public testimony will be public. We will have notice.
Q: The bulk of the information will be gathered by working groups, which are exempt from that ruling, right?
MR. STEPHANOPOULOS: I don't know that I necessarily agree with that because you also have to look at the full -- we are also having hearings through the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, where the First Lady is going to be presiding this week; and we will have a series of public hearings across the country to gather information from the public. I mean, I think that what's important here is that the Health Care Task Force, as contemplated, will continue its work.
Q: Well, as long as that's true, then why did the administration mount as a defense in this proceeding the argument that Hillary Clinton and Mrs. Gore were not covered, did not constitute the kinds of outside presences that the law covered?
MR. STEPHANOPOULOS: We continue to believe that.
Q: Well, I understand that. But the point is if they could go ahead and hold the meetings they were going to hold anyway, whether they were or not, why was that defense even relevant?
MR. STEPHANOPOULOS: The defense is relevant because that's how the plaintiff said the law -- that's the reason the plaintiffs chose for saying the law applied.
Q: And the judge said it did apply on that position.
MR. STEPHANOPOULOS: Right, but then he also went on to say that FACA's unconstitutional with regard to the advisory functions of the task force.
Q: Direct advisory functions.
MR. STEPHANOPOULOS: Yes.
Q: May I follow up? The working groups that solicit information from interest groups, but those presentations by a AMA or whomever, those are still going to remain closed? That's what I was asking.
MR. STEPHANOPOULOS: Sure.
Q: working groups, solicitation of input is going to be done privately?
MR. STEPHANOPOULOS: Absolutely.
Q: Since we don't have a copy of this in front of us, could you read that line again from page 33 about the working groups?
MR. STEPHANOPOULOS: Yes. Actually, it's not page 33, it's page two.
Q: It's not believed that that was the intention of the judge to make that kind of input open to the public?
MR. STEPHANOPOULOS: All claims based on the interdepartmental working group are dismissed.
MR. STEPHANOPOULOS: For failing to state a claim upon which relief may be granted. In addition, plaintiff's claim -- this is from -- and it follows: Plaintiff's claims based on meetings of the task force which are held for the purpose of formulating advice and recommendations for the President are also dismissed under Rule 12.
Q: So the judge specifically said --
MR. STEPHANOPOULOS: Section -- right. Exactly.
Q: not only direct advice, he said also formulating.
MR. STEPHANOPOULOS: Formulating and recommendations. Section 10A(1), 10A(3) and 10C of FACA are not applicable to these meetings, since their application to these meetings is unconstitutional as a violation of separation of powers principles.
Q: Well, you could apply that standard to just about every meeting that's held by this task force or working group, could you not?
MR. STEPHANOPOULOS: Yes. Absolutely. (Laughter.) That's why the President is gratified. (Laughter.)
Q: Thank you. (Laughter.)
Q: task force you form in the future about any subject.
MR. STEPHANOPOULOS: Well, again, I think the judge is clear. If you're formulating recommendations for the President, the President has -- that advice is protected.
Q: George, would you come back one more time please, just to finish this thought -- that if the working groups solicit information, it's closed. And I understand the judge said that. You say there's going to be one meeting of the full task force open to solicit testimony. How will -- what is different about the testimony the task force will take than this other testimony that is being taken in private? I mean, how do you decide which groups will give information in private and which ones will come to the public?
MR. STEPHANOPOULOS: Well, I think that -- I don't know how exactly the hearing itself will be structured. I mean, I don't know how much time there will be. But clearly, anybody will have the opportunity to submit their testimony, not necessarily deliver it verbally, but clearly have the possibility of delivering it to the task force.
Q: Are they basically people who want the chance to do so and haven't been invited by a working group --
MR. STEPHANOPOULOS: Certainly the plaintiffs will be invited and they'll have the opportunity to present their testimony.
Let me just point out the judge's reasoning for protecting the ability of the President's advisors to formulate their recommendations. He says on page 19 of his ruling: "He must be able to trust that his advisors shall speak with complete candor and that they will not be cowed by the fear of premature public reaction. This candor's risk should FACA-apply to the task force. A realistic and practical appraisal of the application of FACA to these presidential advisors reveals that FACA prevents the President from receiving the full measure of the task force advice," which is exactly what we've been saying for several weeks.
Q: Can we get a list of the people -- remember that meeting, it was the first meeting we thought of the task force at OEOB a few weeks ago and there was going to be a photo op and Hillary was going to preside and Mr. Clinton was going to be there as well over in OEOB. Could we get a list of the people who were at that meeting?
MR. STEPHANOPOULOS: I don't know exactly which meeting you're referring to --
Q: It was what we thought was the first meeting of the task force. I think it may be --
MR. BOORSTIN: That's incorrect.
Q: Well, what was it?
MR. BOORSTIN: It must have been the first tollgate meeting.
Q: What's that?
MR. STEPHANOPOULOS: It's one of the working group meetings.
Q: one more time the judge's specific decision on the status of Hillary Clinton. Your interpretation.
MR. STEPHANOPOULOS: The judge's specific decision is that it's been dismissed with regard to the working groups and it's been dismissed with regard to the ability of the task force to formulate recommendations for the President.
Q: On the status of Hillary Clinton?
Q: Yes, her status?
Q: The issue that the court disagreed with you on.
MR. STEPHANOPOULOS: The judge disagreed with our pleading.
Q: So he found what, she is considered an outside --
MR. STEPHANOPOULOS: He said, yes, an outside advisor.
Q: The judge also criticized the administration for precipitating a constitutional crisis which he said could have been avoided if you had had legislation that would have made the First Lady a government employee. How do you respond to that?
MR. STEPHANOPOULOS: Well, what's your question?
Q: How do you respond to that? Why didn't you take a legislative course instead of a judicial course?
MR. STEPHANOPOULOS: Well, if the Congress chooses to change it, I mean, I think that's something we would certainly look at.
Q: George, you said he did not draw a distinction between the task force itself and the advisory groups. And, again, at the disadvantage of reading you what is obviously a paraphrased wire account, but it quotes the judge as saying -- or paraphrases the judge as saying, the White House violated the law by not formally registering the task force with the Library of Congress and not giving notice in advance of its meetings or meetings of the advisory groups.
MR. STEPHANOPOULOS: I think the AP story is wrong. Clearly the working groups -- it has been dismissed with regard to the working groups. The task force hasn't met; we will make any public filing before the meeting of the task force.
Q: You're saying the news account --
MR. STEPHANOPOULOS: The news account just isn't right, as far as our reading of the judge's opinion. And it's -- I mean, it's a plain reading -- again, page two of the order is very plain.
Q: You don't plan to appeal any aspects of this ruling?
MR. STEPHANOPOULOS: I said I don't want to make a blanket statement at this time. We're still going to review it and go over it. But as I said, basically, the work of the task force can continue as contemplated.
Q: Why should this not be viewed as a setback for open government?
MR. STEPHANOPOULOS: Well, I mean, when the task force receives information from the public, it will be a public meeting.
Q: But by calling it a working group it's closed to the public.
MR. STEPHANOPOULOS: This is the President's staff giving him advice. We've had a far more open process than any administration before us. I mean, let me remind everybody we have not even developed a legislation yet. There will be ample time for public involvement when the legislation is presented to Congress, when there are hearings in Congress, and that is -- right now we're having far more accessibility and openness than ever before at this stage of the game.
Q: Will Mrs. Clinton be having any comment today?
MR. STEPHANOPOULOS: Not that I know of.
THE PRESS: Thank you.
END3:51 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/269363