Press Briefing by George Stephanopoulos
The Briefing Room
3:08 P.M. EST
MR. STEPHANOPOULOS: I want to start out with a statement from the President.
I welcome the important decision by the Russian government that it will participate in the airdrop operation providing humanitarian supplies into Bosnia.
This Russian assistance significantly enhances the efforts of the international community to ensure adequate relief supplies reach the beleaguered population both by air and by land. It underscores the importance of close U.S.-Russian cooperation in opposing the brutality and humanity occurring in the former Yugoslavian region, and demonstrates the benefits from a strong partnership between our two countries.
Q: A question on Haiti. Back in July the President supported the -- court decision and said that overturned a cruel decision of the Bush administration. Why then does the Clinton administration go into the Supreme Court today and argue to uphold that policy?
MR. STEPHANOPOULOS: For humanitarian reasons. The President has concluded that the practice of direct return should be maintained for the time being. It's based on his conviction that if he did not continue this policy at the present time we would simply have hundreds if not thousands of Haitians taking to the sea in boats that are likely to be unsafe and that we would be risking a real tragedy. Hundreds of thousands of people could possibly lose their lives in this kind of an operation.
The President believes it's essential that he retain the ability to implement this kind of practice when the circumstances demand, and for this reason he has supported and had this argument offered in the courts.
Q: Why did he not think this true in the campaign?
MR. STEPHANOPOULOS: The President has reconsidered his position. He has gone through this and he simply believes at the present time that it would lead to humanitarian disaster.
Q: That's exactly what the Bush administration said when it first instituted the practice of doing that, in words that are strikingly similar to yours. Do you have any second thoughts about what was said during the campaign about that Bush policy?
MR. STEPHANOPOULOS: Well, the President believes that he is doing the right thing now. It is clearly, in his mind, proper to continue this practice at the present time in order to avert a real tragedy. And that's what he must do. He believes that a precipitous change would lead to a significant humanitarian problem.
Q: George, why didn't he think of this problem during the campaign and avoid the risk of the tragedy?
MR. STEPHANOPOULOS: Well, again, I can't speak for every line in the campaign, but the President has reevaluated the position and believes at this time, although the practice should still be for exceptional circumstances, it would be wrong to discontinue it.
Q: Wasn't it something predictable?
MR. STEPHANOPOULOS: I don't know that. I mean, I would also emphasize -- and we'll be issuing a statement on this -- that the President has significantly changed U.S. policy toward Haiti in the last several months. He has reinvigorated the process toward peace and democracy. He has supported the efforts of the U.N. and the OAS to negotiate, and a U.N. and an OAS civilian monitoring team has been deployed in Haiti. And we hope that this will create an atmosphere that's conducive to respect for human rights and political dialogue.
At the same time, he's moving the negotiating process forward. He's invited President Aristide for a meeting on March 16th, which would also help move the political process along. He's also directed U.S. officials to significantly increase the capacity to review asylum cases. He sent a monitoring team to Haiti and he's directed the State Department to send a technical mission, which has developed proposals for more rapid refugee processing. He's made it easier for Haitians outside of Port-au-Prince to apply for refugee status and U.S. resettlement and to enhance the safety of the repatriation process for the returnees. We've made the capacity for asylum cases -- we've reduced it from about two months to about a week in Haiti.
At the present time we've had a significant change in policy, both to increase the chances that democracy will prevail in Haiti and to reduce the time spent on asylum. So we have had direct changes. At the same time, the President does feel that for the present moment, the practice of direct return should be maintained.
Q: This isn't just a question of policy, it's a question of interpretation of law. I believe the President said during the campaign that he thought the Bush administration's actions violated international law and that he agreed with the Court of Appeals decision not just on the policy grounds, but on legal grounds. What's changed since the campaign in terms of the President and his advisors' interpretation of the law?
MR. STEPHANOPOULOS: The President continues to believe that this practice should be reserved for exceptional circumstances. But he reserves the right as President, as a sole practitioner of foreign policy, to make these decisions, and that's why he supports this action in the court today.
Q: Do you have any numbers of how many of those applicants have been approved for asylum?
MR. STEPHANOPOULOS: I believe -- I'm not sure. I believe I do have some updated numbers. Let me check. More than 8,000 Haitians have completed preliminary applications and about 3,244 have been interviewed by the INS. Of these, 348 have been approved for refugee status and 231 have arrived in the U.S. -- 2,890 have been rejected.
Q: Since when? What was the time frame?
Q: my question. Has his interpretation of the law changed?
MR. STEPHANOPOULOS: Again, I can't go back to the campaign. I can just say at the moment he believes that the practice has to be maintained. He believes that he -- the President does maintain constitutional responsibilities that he has to carry out. And even though he believes this is a policy for exceptional circumstances, it is one that he feels should be maintained for now.
Q: Jesse Jackson says that this is racially motivated and that this is a battle for the heart and soul of Bill Clinton. Do you have a response to that?
MR. STEPHANOPOULOS: The President believes that at the moment the best way we can avoid loss of life is to proceed with this policy. At the same time, we have to move forward on increasing the prospects for real democratization and real respect for human rights in Haiti.
Q: But Jackson says this is racially motivated because we don't have similar restrictions on immigration from other countries where they are not people of color.
MR. STEPHANOPOULOS: The President believes this is an exceptional circumstance, but it has to do with the great potential for humanitarian tragedy if we did not go forward in this way at this time.
Q: Can you respond to Jackson's criticism of Bill Clinton?
MR. STEPHANOPOULOS: What is the specific criticism?
Q: That it is racially motivated and that this is a fight for the heart and soul of Bill Clinton.
MR. STEPHANOPOULOS: That is not true. The President is doing what he must do at this time in order to avert a humanitarian tragedy. He's doing what he must do as President to save lives and to act in the best interests of the United States.
Q: George, do you have an announcement of Latin American appointments?
MR. STEPHANOPOULOS: Nothing today.
Q: George, has his diplomatic initiative resulted in any progress to get closer to restoring democracy or putting Aristide back into office?
MR. STEPHANOPOULOS: Well, as you know, we're going to be meeting with President Aristide on the 16th. We've been continually supporting the U.N.-OAS efforts, and as they continue we hope that they will yield progress. And we'll continue to support them.
Q: So no progress so far?
MR. STEPHANOPOULOS: I can't say there's no progress. The dialogue is continuing. We have sent the technical mission. We have had some success in having monitors put in place in Haiti and we hope that will continue.
Q: What's the status of the Haitians at Guantanamo?
MR. STEPHANOPOULOS: Nothing has changed. The President continues to review it.
Q: What's being reviewed? I mean, you've said that to us for three weeks now.
MR. STEPHANOPOULOS: And he is continuing to review it -- reviewing their status and reviewing the various options for dealing with the situation.
Q: Their status isn't going to change, George. They're still going to be there, they're still going to be infected. What are you going to do with them?
MR. STEPHANOPOULOS: We're reviewing the options on what to do. When we have an announcement, we'll tell you.
Q: George, in terms of Ruth's question before, is the President's position that George Bush broke the law by sending people home, but he is not breaking the law by sending people home?
MR. STEPHANOPOULOS: No, the President has reconsidered his position. He believes that this is the right thing to do. It is the best way to save lives. He believes the President has the legal authority to carry out this policy.
Q: And that Bush did as well?
MR. STEPHANOPOULOS: Again, by implication, of course.
Q: So that he was wrong during the campaign?
MR. STEPHANOPOULOS: Again, the President has reconsidered his position. He believes that this is the right course.
Q: George, some supporters of President Aristide say that at this March 16th meeting, they're going to fix -- a date certain is going to be established for him to return to Haiti. Do you know anything about that?
MR. STEPHANOPOULOS: I don't, and I can't comment on the specifics of the meeting.
Q: Does that ring familiar with anything that you might --
MR. STEPHANOPOULOS: It's the first I've heard of it.
Q: Did the U.S. ask Russia to participate in the airlift? Are any other countries participating?
MR. STEPHANOPOULOS: I don't believe any other countries are participating at this time. But, as you know, Secretary of State Warren Christopher met with Minister Kozyrev last Thursday and they had a discussion on this matter. And I think it's led to this decision by the Russians today.
Q: And it has been successful? Dee Dee said this morning --
MR. STEPHANOPOULOS: Absolutely, from what we've heard so far from the Pentagon. I'd refer you to them for any operational details, but we believe so far we've had success.
Q: But, George, the main aim of that, the airlift, was to bring the factions back to the negotiating table. And right now - - a new Serbian offensive in Eastern Bosnia. So what does it say about the success of the airlift?
MR. STEPHANOPOULOS: Well, again, the airlift had, first of all, the purpose of making sure we got food and medicine to people in need where they needed it and that we think it is being successful. At the same time, we will continue to press for the negotiations to continue.
Q: Is there a feeling that maybe the Serbs are taking you for a ride or somewhere?
MR. STEPHANOPOULOS: No. We just continue to hope that both sides will negotiate.
Q: Do you think that it is possible to ignore this information that the Russian military sent arms to the Serbs in breaking the U.N. sanctions?
MR. STEPHANOPOULOS: Which information?
Q: Well, there was information -- on Sunday that the Russian military is delivering arms to the Serbian side and breaking the U.N. sanctions. Would you know about that?
MR. STEPHANOPOULOS: I can't comment on it because I haven't seen anything on that, but I'll look into it.
Q: On Russia, George, is Secretary Espy planning to offer additional aid, especially in the form of grain credits, to the Russian delegation that's here?
MR. STEPHANOPOULOS: I know he's meeting with the Russian delegation today. I don't know of any plans to offer specific parcels of aid.
Q: Do you know whether there is discussion of their resuming payments on some of their debt so they can get back in --
MR. STEPHANOPOULOS: Again, I would refer you to the Agriculture Department after the meeting.
Q: Is the administration concerned that if the U.S. continues to refuse that Russia might go elsewhere with it's grain business?
MR. STEPHANOPOULOS: Well, again, we want to have good discussions with the Russians. We've had success in the past. But I think you should go to Agriculture after the meeting.
Q: George, I'd like to get a readout on the President's meetings on the Hill, but first, leading into that, there's a report that he told the House Republican Conference or the senators at lunch that he would like to have cut more, but the Democrats in Congress wouldn't let him -- that he could not get those cuts through.
MR. STEPHANOPOULOS: That's not the way I heard it. What the President said is what he has said several times in the past, is that he's continually looking for cuts and will continue to look for cuts and will try to get as many cuts as he can.
That said, I think he was very encouraged by his meetings today, both in the House and the Senate. They were very cordial meetings, again, both in the House and the Senate, thanks to the hosting of both leaders Michel and Dole. And the President believes that the American people want the President and the Congress, both Republicans and Democrats, to work together and to lay the groundwork for a productive relationship.
There are going to be disagreements at times. And you can't wish those away. But, at the same time, he believes that we will be able to reach substantial agreement on a number of issues, and he was very encouraged by the groundwork that was laid today and the relationships that were built.
Q: Did he win any votes, get any support that he --
MR. STEPHANOPOULOS: Time will tell.
Q: They didn't whine? (Laughter.)
MR. STEPHANOPOULOS: No, but I got a Diet Coke. (Laughter.)
Q: House Republicans gave him a letter asking him to appoint someone to investigate the handling of the Harold Ford case to see if there were any possible violations of the law. Is the President going to do that?
MR. STEPHANOPOULOS: There were none. The letter will go to counsel. But, again, if there are any specific questions, we'd be happy to answer them. We've answered them here day after day after day. And this was handled in the proper manner.
Q: George, have you determined yet -- has the White House determined yet who in the Counsel's Office contacted the Attorney General's Office concerning this Ford case? Who specifically made --
MR. STEPHANOPOULOS: I believe we said a letter was transferred from Vince Foster, the Deputy Counsel, over to the Attorney General.
Q: George, Dole said this morning that some Republicans might end up voting for the President's economic package if the President were willing to negotiate directly with Republicans on deeper spending cuts and fewer tax increases. Is the President willing to sit down or to have Panetta sit down with a team appointed by the Republican leadership to try and work out some kind of compromise?
MR. STEPHANOPOULOS: The President's willing to hear any suggestions that anybody has for meeting the deficit numbers and increasing investment and any ideas people have for spending cuts or the deficit numbers and increasing investment and any ideas people have for spending cuts or revenue increases to meet that goal. At the same time, the congressional process is continuing, the hearing process is going on in the Hill right now. We respect that process.
Q: direct negotiations between the White House and the Republicans on the Hill. I gather that's a non-starter.
MR. STEPHANOPOULOS: Well, right now we're ready and waiting to listen to any plans they have to put forward at the same time the hearings have started on the Hill.
Q: George, has the President been briefed today on the situation in Waco and is the White House asking for any sort of review of how that operation was planned?
MR. STEPHANOPOULOS: He was briefed this morning, and I believe he gets periodic updates as the situation changes. I don't know that there's been any significant change during the day today that he's been made aware of, but we're just following the situation closely.
Q: Is there any question about the timing or the execution of that raid?
MR. STEPHANOPOULOS: Again, I'm not going to comment at all on the situation as it stands.
Q: Is there likely to be any sort of federal investigation into how that unfolded?
MR. STEPHANOPOULOS: I'm just not going to comment at all.
Q: George, I have a follow-up to my question. When you mean it was referred to the Counsel's Office, does that mean the Counselor is going to report, send some sort of letter to the Republicans explaining what happened?
MR. STEPHANOPOULOS: I'm certain that we'll respond.
Q: George, on Waco, your I'm not going to comment" isn't exactly a ringing endorsement of the ATF procedures.
MR. STEPHANOPOULOS: I don't think it should be read either way. I just don't feel that we should comment on a situation that is likely to be dangerous right now. I mean, while the situation is still going on in Waco, we're just not going to comment.
Q: You can't say you don't think they're doing a good job right now?
MR. STEPHANOPOULOS: We're just not going to comment on it.
Q: What about on the World Trade Center? Anything, any new information?
MR. STEPHANOPOULOS: The investigation is proceeding. Nothing new.
Q: George, back to the budget. Phill Gramm is talking about caps and others are talking about freezes and Kemp now is out there talking about big tax cuts. Do you consider these serious proposals or is this sort of voodoo economics?
MR. STEPHANOPOULOS: Well, again, what we've said time and time again is that don't give us caps, be specific. We have 150 specific spending cuts that we've put forward. We've seen caps for the last decade. They don't work and they don't mean much. At the same time, simply cutting taxes is not going to grow this economy at all and it's going to raise the deficit. So that's not a serious solution.
Q: George, back on the Trade Towers. Who's briefing the President on developments up there?
MR. STEPHANOPOULOS: Mack McLarty is in touch with the Attorney General who receives reports and then Mack gives them to the President.
Q: So it's not coming through the national security side, it's coming through the domestic side?
MR. STEPHANOPOULOS: The national security situation room receives reports as they do on a number of subjects and that's just the raw data.
Q: On the same subject, can I follow?
Q: What is the role of William Sessions in this process at this point?
MR. STEPHANOPOULOS: Well, Sessions is the Director of the FBI, and the FBI is leading the investigation, along with ATF and the New York Police Department. So he is playing a significant role.
Q: Will he brief beyond what he did on Saturday?
MR. STEPHANOPOULOS: I know he's talked to the President once or twice. I'm not sure the last time they talked.
Q: Any indication -- is his stock going up now?
MR. STEPHANOPOULOS: The Director of the FBI is doing a good job.
Q: George, the fact that the joint terrorism task force is now officially in charge, should we read from that to conclude that it was an act of terrorism?
MR. STEPHANOPOULOS: Again, I shouldn't -- I really shouldn't comment on that while the investigations is proceeding.
Q: George, the other thing I asked Dee Dee this morning and she didn't have anything on Reich saying over the weekend or late last week that if the economy doesn't pick up sharply or unemployment drop sharply by the end of the year you'll come back with a larger stimulus package?
MR. STEPHANOPOULOS: Again, that's a hypothetical. We hope that the economy will continue to grow and unemployment will go down and nothing will be necessary at. But that's a hypothetical I can't get into.
Q: But he said it. So can you give us some sense of whether he's talking through his hat or making policy or reflecting the President's view, or what?
MR. STEPHANOPOULOS: Again, if we face a situation where the economy ground to a halt and unemployment skyrocketed, we would have to take action of some sort. But we don't feel we face that situation right now. The President's plan stands . We want passage of this plan now.
Q: So there's no planning, contingency planning being done at this point?
MR. STEPHANOPOULOS: Not at this point. We're focused on getting this plan through the Congress.
Q: Are you saying, George, that there would be no movement in that direction unless the economy ground to a halt and unemployment skyrocketed?
MR. STEPHANOPOULOS: I'm saying that right now we're focused on passing this economic plan, the plan the President's put forward. And we believe this plan will increase growth and jobs.
Q: I understand that much, but I'm trying to get a measure of how close we are to Mr. Reich's comments. Would it take substantial decline in economic growth to prompt additions to the stimulus package?
MR. STEPHANOPOULOS: At this point we believe that if the President's stimulus package is acted on and passed by the Congress, he will sign it into law, along with his investment package. That will have a positive effect on the economy and no other actions will be needed at this time. We are focused on the President's plan.
Q: George, the FBI report is due on the Janet Reno nomination, I believe, today. Is there any reason to believe that that nomination is in any other --
MR. STEPHANOPOULOS: Not at all. It's going fine.
Q: How much deeper is the President willing to go as far as budget cuts are concerned? And is he or the staff reviewing possible further cuts themselves?
MR. STEPHANOPOULOS: As the President said, we'll continue to review all possible cuts and we're open to any suggestions from the Congress.
Q: My question is, and I realize you're open to suggestions, but is there an ongoing process to identify further cuts? The President had said several times he had only been here four weeks, but he's done pretty good so far, he said. So my question is, is he continuing himself or with his staff to review for further cuts?
MR. STEPHANOPOULOS: Every day the President comes to work he is going to be looking for ways to make government more effective, to reduce the cost of government, to cut government where he can. It's never going to stop.
Q: Is that on the record? (Laughter.)
Q: Filing break. (Laughter.)
Q: Every day in every way a little better.
Q: Republicans at least on the House side today after meeting with the President -- they said basically their sense was that he wanted much deeper cuts from the beginning, to do less in the way of new taxes. But his sense was that that wouldn't pass the Democrats in Congress. They're putting the blame on Democrats in Congress. Is this a wrong impression?
MR. STEPHANOPOULOS: I think it probably is. The President has always said that he was not eager to raise taxes. He's not eager to raise taxes. He wants to get as many cuts as he can. He will continue to push for those cuts at the same time as he pushes for the other parts of his proposal, the important investments that he thinks are essential to future jobs and growth. But, no, the President believes that we have to pass his package now in order to get that kind of growth.
Q: is putting the be-specific ball back in your court. His comments after the meeting, he said, $112 billion of defense cuts are not specific; if you want us to be specific, you should be specific, too. We're asked to vote for a budget without having the actual budget. How do you respond to that?
MR. STEPHANOPOULOS: Well, I mean, I think you can always come up with a reason for not acting. And this issue is a false issue. Our vision for change the President presented last week is 150 pages, with 150 specific cuts. It is far greater -- it's probably almost three times the size of the document that the Bush administration put forward before the 1990 budget agreement. It is similar in size to the Bush budget that he submitted on February 9th, 1989. It also includes computer-run backups and other specifics that previous budgets under Republican administrations did not have. It's a false issue.
Q: But, George, the guy kind of has a point, doesn't he? When proposals for caps are denounced from this platform and others as being phony and insufficiently specific, Republicans in the House are complaining that they're going to be asked to vote on a budget resolution relating to a budget that they have not yet seen.
MR. STEPHANOPOULOS: No, they have seen the budget. We've put out 150-page document with 150 specific spending cuts in detail, explained.
Q: I understand your argument on this score, but isn't there something to the idea that they're being asked to vote on a budget resolution concerning a budget that hasn't been published in full?
MR. STEPHANOPOULOS: Again, this is common. It has happened in the past. It happened in 1990. We have given as much detail -- more detail in many instances than any of our predecessors.
Q: Now, if a member of the Congress offers by letter or statement or speech some specific cuts, how will the member of Congress know when or if that proposal has been thought through, acted upon, accepted, rejected -- what?
MR. STEPHANOPOULOS: If members of Congress write the President, he'll return their letter.
Q: So the proper forum for making a suggestion is through a letter to the President? Is that what you're saying?
MR. STEPHANOPOULOS: No, no -- well, you said, what would we do if they sent us a letter.
Q: Suppose it was made in a speech or was made in -- how do you know when your suggestion has been --
MR. STEPHANOPOULOS: We'll keep our ears open. We'll be listening. (Laughter.)
Q: Yes, but last week on the Federal Page of The Washington Post there was a whole bunch of specifics set forth by a number of members.
MR. STEPHANOPOULOS: But not by -- no, they weren't really by members. They were from outside groups.
Q: Porter Goss is a member, isn't he?
MR. STEPHANOPOULOS: Again, there probably are some suggestions coming through, and we're going to review --
Q: Well, how does a guy like that know when the specific proposal had been thought through, acted on, decided on -- what?
MR. STEPHANOPOULOS: He can write the President, he can go to the budget committee and make testimony before the budget committee where it can also be considered. But if any member --
Q: What about by the administration?
MR. STEPHANOPOULOS: If any member of Congress has an idea, they should write the President; we'll respond.
Q: Are we going to get something in the next day or so on this streamlining government or --
MR. STEPHANOPOULOS: I think the President will have an announcement tomorrow.
Q: Is it the Texas audit model?
MR. STEPHANOPOULOS: We'll have an announcement tomorrow.
Q: On what? What is this?
MR. STEPHANOPOULOS: Streamlining government.
Q: Is he going to Little Rock, or isn't he?
MR. STEPHANOPOULOS: No plans at this point.
Q: Where is his trip next week, George?
Q: Can you give us a day so we can block out a day?
MR. STEPHANOPOULOS: I don't know. As soon as I have something, I'll get it to you.
Q: What's the schedule for the rest of the week, though, George?
MR. STEPHANOPOULOS: At this point I believe he's going to be in Washington for the rest of the week.
Q: Where's the summit?
Q: Somebody asked you this question the other day and if you gave the answer, I'm sorry I missed it -- the President's position on price supports -- or subsidies for tobacco?
MR. STEPHANOPOULOS: I did not give the answer and I still don't have it. I'll get it back to you. He didn't have any specific cuts in this budget.
Q: Do you also have an answer on what the President's position is on whether tobacco companies should have a limited amount that they can deduct for the cost of their advertising -- whether that should be changed?
MR. STEPHANOPOULOS: I've never asked him. I'll find out.
Q: To get back to Bosnia, can you confirm that the operation will be suspended tonight after a third airdrop to allow the Pentagon to make a full assessment of the results?
MR. STEPHANOPOULOS: I can't -- no.
Q: Is there any truth in it or --
MR. STEPHANOPOULOS: I just can't comment on it.
Q: How close does the White House follow the Bosnian peace negotiations in New York? Was this something that's completely up to the State Department?
MR. STEPHANOPOULOS: We're very concerned and we hope they make progress. But the State Department has the front lines.
Q: Don't you see the danger that with the military offensive of the Serbian side these days and that the whole use of the negotiations gets lost because the villages where the American airdrops are supposed to send food are about to fall and the situation on the ground seems to change so quickly that the use of the peace negotiations gets lost?
MR. STEPHANOPOULOS: Again, we'll just continue to press both sides to make progress at the negotiation table.
END 3:30 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/269202