Press Briefing by George Stephanopoulos
The Briefing Room
1:30 P.M. EDT
THE PRESIDENT: The President's having lunch with the Vice President now. And I'm just ready to take questions.
Q: George, what is the President's strategy for getting the economic plan through the House and then the Senate in the aftermath of Senator Boren's defection?
MR. STEPHANOPOULOS: Well, first of all, the President said he's against Senator Boren's alternative, and it's for a very simple reason: Senator Boren's alternative is going to lower taxes on the wealthy and pay for it by cutting Social Security benefits for millions of seniors. It's going to index capital gains, which will also have a benefit for the wealthy, but cut the earned income tax credit, which is a good start on welfare reform, in half. I mean, this is the kind of policies we had for the last 12 years, and it's time to turn it around.
Q: George, what about Senator Breaux's criticism of the President's plan. Senator Breaux did not endorse Senator Boren's plan, but he put out a statement criticizing the administration's proposal and saying he won't support it as it now fashioned.
MR. STEPHANOPOULOS: I haven't seen those remarks. I can't comment specifically on the remarks except to say that the President is going to continue to meet with members of the House and members of the Senate and sell his package.
Q: Isn't there a risk that in trying to reach the kinds of compromises that will help him in the Senate, the House coalition could come unraveled?
MR. STEPHANOPOULOS: Well, that's not what's happening right now. The President went to the House yesterday. The President said he was sticking with his package. The President said he believes that he's got a balanced package that brings the deficit down by raising taxes on the wealthy and having real spending cuts. And he's going to continue to try to and make that case in the House and the Senate.
Q: George, you explained a moment ago why the President opposes Senator Boren's plan, but let me ask you about the other half of Wolf's question, which is what's he going to do about this? You don't have 11 votes on the Finance Committee right now. At best you have 10. How are you going to manage to get a plan that will get out the Finance Committee?
MR. STEPHANOPOULOS: Well, I think this is the beginning of the process. Let's take first things first.
Number one, we hope to have a vote on this plan in the House next week. We feel good about the President's visit to the Democratic Caucus yesterday. The President is going to continue to work throughout this week in order to get a good majority in the House and then we're going to move on to the Senate. He's met with members of the Senate Finance Committee as well, and we'll continue that. This is just the beginning of the legislative process.
Q: Doesn't this seem eerily reminiscent of the stimulus package where you managed to get it through the House and you kept saying when we get to the Senate we're going to get it worked out; and you got to the Senate and you didn't --
MR. STEPHANOPOULOS: No.
Q: you were sort of caught between the two sides and couldn't get out of it.
MR. STEPHANOPOULOS: Well, I don't think so. Obviously, you have to work on all fronts at the same time. And the President has had discussions with the Senate Finance Committee, as you know, last week. He's had discussions continually with members of the Senate Finance Committee, including Senator Moynihan, Senators Boren, Breaux, Senator Johnston, many other members of the Senate. And those discussions will continue, but the President is using those discussions to point out the merits of his plan. And we have a long way to go in the process.
Q: George, in the light of the flap over the firing of the Travel Office, has the White House considered any further action, perhaps reinstatement on leave or anything for these employees?
MR. STEPHANOPOULOS: A reinstatement?
Q: On leave.
MR. STEPHANOPOULOS: No, not at this time, no.
Q: One other question about -- somewhat travel related. There stories in the paper today that the President was delayed on the runway in Los Angeles while he had Monsieur Cristophe come in --
MR. STEPHANOPOULOS: Another haircut story.
Q: to give him a haircut. Earlier he had sat on the runway at Andrews for 50 minutes while he finished his dinner with all the necessary personnel attending him. Is the White House at all concerned that this makes the President look a little foolish and self-indulgent, this kind of behavior?
MR. STEPHANOPOULOS: No. (Laughter.) It's the short answer. Just to explain further, I think it's common practice -- as you know, President Bush would quite often go to the -- and have the plane on the runway overnight and sleep on the plane. And often would go early and have it held. And this is --
Q: Excuse me --
Q: Vice President Bush --
MR. STEPHANOPOULOS: Vice President Bush?
Q: Not President --
Q: Yes, he did it once.
Q: He did it once going --
Q: He did it once, but they flew in the middle of the night.
MR. STEPHANOPOULOS: Okay, well, that's just one point --
Q: And he was in the hangar when --
MR. STEPHANOPOULOS: At Andrews. But just -- on the L.A. airport, no planes were held up at all.
Q: Well, wait a minute, the FAA says that at least two were.
MR. STEPHANOPOULOS: According -- the information -- there was no hold placed on the air traffic at LAX. There was just no hold placed on air traffic.
Q: So you've checked -- you've seen the wires with the FAA spokesman saying that two runways were held up and so that -- citing the commuter planes that were 26, 18, 37 minutes late, you're saying they made that all up?
MR. STEPHANOPOULOS: No, I'm saying that there was no hold placed, according to our information, there was no hold placed on the aircraft at LAX.
Q: Where does --
MR. STEPHANOPOULOS: I believe it came from the military --
Q: But, George, doesn't this lengthen everybody's day? I mean, you've all this staff that's got to work; you've got Secret Service agents; you've got these two Air Force guys at the bottom of the runway in formation. Everybody's got to stand there and do this, do what they do for an extra 45 or 50 minutes while this guy gets his hair done. Doesn't that smack of high-handedness at least.
MR. STEPHANOPOULOS: Again, I don't think so. I mean, the President has to get his hair cut. Everybody has to get their hair cut. I mean, if he would have stayed back -- if he would have stayed back at the hotel, it wouldn't have made any difference at all in any of the personnel. There are delays, as you know -- I mean, we're not always happy about them, but there are delays in all of the President's trips. There's often -- we often get behind. But the President had to get his hair cut, as most people do. And if it wouldn't have been done there, he could have -- I suppose could have had it done back at the hotel, but it wouldn't have made any difference on the personnel or anything like that.
Q: What does it do in terms of his image, however -- that he gets a $200 haircut while sitting on Air Force One? Forget about whether or not it costs any extra money, is that perceptually, is that the kind of image he wants to convey to people?
MR. STEPHANOPOULOS: Well, again, I mean, the President has to get his hair cut like everybody else has to get their hair cut.
Q: Does he have to get his hair cut by Christophe of Beverly Hills? (Laughter.)
MR. STEPHANOPOULOS: I think he does have the right to choose who he wants to cut his hair.
Q: Yes, we all believe in the right to choose, George. (Laughter.)
Q: Presidents -- get their haircuts on --
MR. STEPHANOPOULOS: I don't know whether other Presidents ever got their hair cut --
Q: I don't --
MR. STEPHANOPOULOS: I'm not -- I can't swear that they didn't. I don't know that they have.
Q: Well, I mean, your statement he's got to get his hair cut. Bush got his hair cut, too. He got it cut here; he went up the street; he got it cut on the Hill when he was up there for something else. Reagan used to get his cut by his favorite guy in Los Angeles when he was up there for three days of vacation. I mean, you don't see any difference between sitting on Air Force One for 60 minutes -- with two runways shut down for 60 minutes to get your hair cut, and a President going somewhat like a normal person goes to get their hair cut?
MR. STEPHANOPOULOS: I think the President normally gets his hair cut sometime during the week. It happens at different places. As you know, he has a very busy schedule. And he just tries to work it in when he can. That was when we were able to work it in.
Q: George, did the President pay the full $200 for the haircut?
MR. STEPHANOPOULOS: The President and his family have a personal services contract with Christophe to cover things like this?
Q: Would you tell us the amount and --
MR. STEPHANOPOULOS: I don't know -- it covers things like makeup and hair and they just -- they pay for it.
Q: Does he do the President's makeup?
MR. STEPHANOPOULOS: It's for the whole family.
Q: Does that cover the President's makeup when he's made up here for and event?
Q: And Socks?
MR. STEPHANOPOULOS: I don't know what -- (laughter) -- Socks. (Laughter.)
Q: in the prior administration when Nancy Reagan obtained the designer dresses on the basis that was not available to ordinary people. And so to simply say there's a personal services contract and not give us any details about what it covers or what it costs invites speculation that he's getting a Nancy Reagan-type deal. So can you get us some details.
MR. STEPHANOPOULOS: The only details I can give you is that they have a contract for these kinds of services. That's all I know.
Q: Can you find out --
Q: Is there a going rate?
MR. STEPHANOPOULOS: I don't know what the going rate is.
Q: When was this deal inked? (Laughter.)
MR. STEPHANOPOULOS: I don't know the answer to that either. I know that they used Christophe quite often during the campaign.
Q: Is he still the President of the common man, George? (Laughter.)
MR. STEPHANOPOULOS: What?
Q: still the President of --
MR. STEPHANOPOULOS: Absolutely. If you look at his economic package, it's a package that's designed to turn this around and to really make -- get some real benefits for middle-class America. That's what's important.
Q: Getting back to the delays, I just wanted to make sure -- the point that you said there were no delays. The FAA just said, from California, just said that there were two arrival delays -- two commuter planes -- one for 25 minutes, one for 17 minutes, and that there may have been others, but they don't keep records --
MR. STEPHANOPOULOS: All I know is that there was no hold placed on the air traffic. As you know, LAX probably has -- I mean, I don't know the numbers, but it's probably hundreds if not more planes come in an hour. It wouldn't necessarily be unusual to have some sort of delays. All I know is there was no official hold placed on the air traffic.
Q: By the military? I mean, is that --
MR. STEPHANOPOULOS: We've gotten that information from the military.
Q: Who would put a hold on it?
MR. STEPHANOPOULOS: I suppose the Secret Service would do it, but I mean, this is our information.
Q: But who would that go through? What I'm getting at is the credibility of the information you're getting from the military. Are they the ones who make the decision to hold the runways or are they just asking around as well?
MR. STEPHANOPOULOS: No, I think they generally make it with the Secret Service. But I can double-check, but this is -- I was just told, as I said, that there was no hold placed on any of the air traffic.
Q: Except the two runways were closed.
Q: For 56 minutes.
Q: I don't know if you put a hold on them --
Q: Maybe the FAA does.
Q: but two runways were closed.
MR. STEPHANOPOULOS: I can find out about that. I just don't know anything about that.
Q: George, is there any concern that this would seem to be of a piece of the President's habit of being late for events, which is meant that people frequently have to wait for him, and the business with the dinner at Andrews and all of it, that it adds up to the picture of a man who is to some degree heedless of the consequences of his personal behavior on others?
MR. STEPHANOPOULOS: Again, the short answer is no. But, I mean, I think that he is obviously well aware of that. And I think that generally the President's been doing a better job of being on time. On these trips, they're packed with a lot of people. The President spent an awful lot of time out on the playground with the kids in South Central, and he ran a little bit behind. He had to get his hair cut. And this was a convenient way to do it. Obviously we're mindful of --
Q: Was this -- had he otherwise planned to have a haircut and it was scheduled -- what happened? How did this come about that it would end up this way?
MR. STEPHANOPOULOS: I honestly don't --
Q: It's no small thing with a little security and everything to get some guy like Monsieur Christophe out to the airport and onto the plane -- who raised all this, do you know?
MR. STEPHANOPOULOS: I don't know that it would necessarily be all that difficult to arrange. But I don't know exactly how it happened at the end. I just know that the President needed to get his hair cut and this was the time he had to do it.
Q: Why does the President have an agreement with a man who is based in Hollywood? He's based in Hollywood, right?
MR. STEPHANOPOULOS: Actually, I think he's opening up a shop here. (Laughter.)
Q: Why do a West Coast deal with someone's who's across the country?
MR. STEPHANOPOULOS: Again, I don't know all of the details of the contract he has. I just know it does cover certain events and certain services. And this is something that he chose to do, and he's certainly free to do it.
Q: Does he fly out here to do it?
MR. STEPHANOPOULOS: I don't know how often he even comes out.
Q: Then why do have a deal?
MR. STEPHANOPOULOS: Because the President chose --
Q: George, is he the only person who cuts the President's hair?
MR. STEPHANOPOULOS: I don't think so.
Q: If he's not then, you come back to the original question -- if he's not the only person who cuts the President's hair, why did two commuter planes have -- and why did the entire staff traveling with the President and the press have to be held up for 45 minutes so that this particular time he could cut the hair?
MR. STEPHANOPOULOS: Again, I think the President needed to get his hair cut, and he did it at that time.
Q: Can I shift subjects here?
MR. STEPHANOPOULOS: Boy, I don't know. Are you sure? (Laughter.)
Q: Back to travel. (Laughter.)
Q: As you know, you all are facing a -- already we're facing a very tight vote in the House on the package because House members -- Democrats are very nervous about voting for an energy tax that was going to disappear on the Senate side and they were going to be hanging out to dry. The question is if Senator Boren and Senator Johnston, Democrats on Finance, and you know, in the Senate are saying --
MR. STEPHANOPOULOS: Johnston's not on the Finance Committee.
Q: in the Senate, Finance on the Senate, are saying now that the BTU tax is dead. And you're still talking about strategy and the vote next week. I'm curious, what are you expecting to see now in the House vote? What implications does this have for the House vote? And what are you doing strategically to try to --
MR. STEPHANOPOULOS: Well, I think we feel good about where we are in the House after the President's visit yesterday. And we're going to continue to work with members of the House through the week right up until the vote. I don't think that the fact that two Senators expressed their views is decisive in the House or the Senate necessarily one way or the other.
Q: George, what are you telling those people in the House who are concerned that they're going to get whipsawed by the Senate, because right now you don't have the votes to get it out of the Finance Committee, and you're going to have to do something to move that process, which those House members don't know what it is. So what are you telling them?
MR. STEPHANOPOULOS: We're telling them what the President said yesterday. He says, I'm going to go out there and fight for my package. If you fight with me, I'll fight for you. That's exactly what he told them.
Q: Senator Breaux has indicated that he might be willing to support a substitute for BTU's -- a gasoline tax or some other form of transportation tax. And since he is a pivotal vote on Senate Finance, wouldn't it behoove the administration to reconsider their position on that and perhaps consider an alternative to the --
MR. STEPHANOPOULOS: The President is not for a gas tax.
Q: As you probably know, some of the groups that oppose your -- the gas tax -- I mean, oppose the BTU tax and some of the other parts of your package, are running quite extensive grassroots campaigns in states like Oklahoma. Is the White House doing anything to counter that?
MR. STEPHANOPOULOS: Well, the White House as you know, Vice President Gore had a press conference two days ago, met with organizations who are fighting for the package here. But also they activate their grassroots networks out in the states and will continue to do that. Obviously, as you know, the White House can't directly lobby --
Q: The DNC can.
MR. STEPHANOPOULOS: And I suppose the DNC will continue to work on this package.
Q: You're not doing anything -- I mean, you know what they're -- I mean, they're doing individual Oklahoma taxpayer charts; they're doing, you know, surveys, some of them somewhat dubious to individual communities and stuff -- all of it very locally based. And there doesn't seem to be any White House answer out there.
MR. STEPHANOPOULOS: No, the White House answer is that that's not the only place it is. As you know, we continually do local interviews. We make sure that information on the package is spread out throughout the country. Groups have fanned out throughout the country and we're working with the members of Congress in their districts as well.
Q: George, are you saying that unequivocally the President will not alter the BTU tax, that other parts of the tax package may be up for change, but you are absolutely committed? He is going to fight all the way through for the BTU tax?
MR. STEPHANOPOULOS: The President is fighting for his package and that's exactly what he's going to continue to do.
Q: Specifically the BTU part of it?
MR. STEPHANOPOULOS: The BTU is part of the President's package and that's what he's fighting for.
Q: But non-negotiable -- except on the fringes in terms of BTU tax is considered an essential element of this package, not to be --
MR. STEPHANOPOULOS: The BTU --
Q: it may be changed to help out with the vote here and there but in it's --
MR. STEPHANOPOULOS: The energy tax is an essential component of the package. The BTU is an essential component of the package we're going to continue to fight for -- absolutely.
Q: Is there room to modify that BTU tax?
MR. STEPHANOPOULOS: Again, this is the legislative process. We're fighting for our BTU tax. We are not looking for changes. We are going to go for the vote in the House. We are then going to move to the Senate and continue to go for a vote on the President's package in the Senate.
Q: But you weren't looking for changes on the ITC proposal either on the Ways and Means side, and you were willing to accept that being dropped. I mean, given the political reality --
MR. STEPHANOPOULOS: I don't know what the political reality is in the Senate until there's a vote.
Q: Aren't you concerned with giving some cover to your supporters on the House side who are afraid of getting --
MR. STEPHANOPOULOS: And we've told them that we're fighting for the package. The President went there yesterday, and said if you stand with me, I'll stand with you. And he's going to continue to do it.
Q: But, George, aren't you setting up perhaps a repeat performance, and David just suggested, of the stimulus defeat by refusing to budge now with your more moderate conservative members of your own party, you're in effect setting up a defeat down the road in the Senate, even if you get it through the House.
MR. STEPHANOPOULOS: Not setting up a defeat. First of all, we believe we have the best package. We are going to continue fight for it. We believe we have majorities in the House to support the President's package. We believe that we have support in the Senate for the President's package. The Chairman of the Senate Finance Committee is going to speak today about the President's package. Obviously, this is the beginning of the process, the legislative process. We still have a long way to go. But the President's committed to fight for the broad outlines of his package. And I would also point out that so far the budget and also in the progress through the House committees, the bulk of the President's package has remained in tact. And we're going to continue to fight for it.
Q: George, can I get my question in?
MR. STEPHANOPOULOS: Sure.
Q: Five hundred thousand Salvadorans will have their status in this country suspended by June 30th if the Clinton administration does not extend their temporary amnesty, which was extended by the Bush administration.
MR. STEPHANOPOULOS: I'll have to take the question. I don't have our latest.
Q: George, there's an anonymous editorial in the New York Times today suggesting that the -- not editorial, excuse me -- novice piece, op-ed piece, suggesting that the policy of the administration should shift toward U.S. troops to protect safe havens. Is this a consideration -- is consideration being given to this in any way?
MR. STEPHANOPOULOS: The President's position on ground troops is quite clear. He said he would only use ground troops to implement and enforce an agreement that was already reached among the parties. That position has not changed.
Q: Do you know who wrote it?
MR. STEPHANOPOULOS: I wish I did.
Q: Is the President -- are you trying to find out who wrote it?
MR. STEPHANOPOULOS: This just in. The source of the -- the fact that no hold was placed on the aircraft is the tower manager at LAX.
Q: How about is the administration any attempt to find out who wrote this article?
MR. STEPHANOPOULOS: Again, we're not going to send out any kind of a witchhunt or anything. We're just going to -- we don't know.
Q: Are you interested in finding out?
MR. STEPHANOPOULOS: I'm interesting in finding out, but I don't know if there's any extraordinary measures being taken to find out, no.
Q: On another matter, now the investigators have determined that Iraq was behind the thwarted the attack on President Bush, and that Bush was indeed the intended target, what does the United States intend to do?
MR. STEPHANOPOULOS: The investigation is not yet complete. I have no further comment.
Q: But haven't investigators already determined, though, that Iraq was behind this?
MR. STEPHANOPOULOS: The investigation isn't complete, no. We have no final conclusions from the investigation at all.
Q: Has the President been briefed on this -- on these preliminary conclusions?
MR. STEPHANOPOULOS: I don't know if he's been briefed on the preliminary conclusions. But I'm certain he'll receive the final report.
Q: Is there any meeting now scheduled with the principals or the other --
MR. STEPHANOPOULOS: No.
Q: So does that mean that we withhold any action because you just consider these preliminary conclusions?
MR. STEPHANOPOULOS: No, it means that we are going to continue our investigation. We are going to conclude the investigation. And it's just not finished yet.
Q: Do you know how long that will take?
MR. STEPHANOPOULOS: I don't.
Q: Sessions investigation?
Q: George, I'd like to ask you about Mr. Watkins, the gentleman who fired the Travel Office. There's a wire report today that, from just a little while ago, that indicates that he has long ties to Worldwide Travel Inc, the organization to which he is now giving, at least on an interim basis, the White House's travel business. Couple of questions. Obviously, are you aware of these ties? Was he indeed the man who arranged for Worldwide Travel to do the Clinton campaign travel during the presidential election? And do you have an qualms about this situation?
MR. STEPHANOPOULOS: Worldwide Travel is the 23rd largest travel agency in the country. It's a travel agency we used in the campaign. It's probably the largest travel agency in Little Rock. It would make sense that we used them in the campaign. They served us well in the campaign. I would emphasize that this is, as you know, simply an interim agreement. Requests for proposals for a competitive bidding process for this travel service will go out over the next 90 days, and it will be a contract subject to competitive bid.
Q: But does Watkins have a connection with Worldwide Travel? That was the question.
MR. STEPHANOPOULOS: I don't know what he's talking about. I just know -- I do know that Worldwide Travel is a large Little Rock travel agency. I do know --
Q: Is it accurate that the woman who is running Worldwide Travel these days says that she and Watkins are former colleagues at a bank, that they worked together, that he's a longterm client, and that he was the man who arranged for Worldwide Travel to do the Clinton campaign travel arrangements?
MR. STEPHANOPOULOS: Well, David Watkins was the administrator of the Clinton campaign. He did run those kinds of activities for the campaign, so it wouldn't be unusual that he would sign the contract with Worldwide Travel to serve the Clinton campaign. But I don't know that it's material.
Q: And you have no problems with the image of a man who worked for this organization previously and has ties to it firing --
MR. STEPHANOPOULOS: Worked with the -- I mean, what worked with and ties --
Q: Excuse me, let me finish my question. If firing seven people and then giving their work, in essence, at least on an interim basis, to the organization with which he worked?
MR. STEPHANOPOULOS: I have no problems whatsoever with after following through on an investigation, having Peat Marwick, an accounting firm, find sloppy management, bad accounting procedures, and reason to move forward on a change immediately in the travel arrangements doing that. At the same time, this in an interim --this is an interim arrangement to make sure that we can continue with travel for the time being while we institute a new system which will have tighter accounting procedures, competitive bids, that will be fixed.
Q: George, could you just take the question of whether or not Watkins had any financial relationship --
MR. STEPHANOPOULOS: Okay, I certainly will.
Q: with Worldwide? That is, did he get any money from them in any form when he was -- before he was in the White House? When he was -- at any period so that he has some financial interest in that firm?
MR. STEPHANOPOULOS: Okay.
Q: And secondly, could you also tell us when you'll release the accounting -- whatever this is -- review --
MR. STEPHANOPOULOS: The Peat Marwick report.
Q: report, as we were told yesterday it would be --
MR. STEPHANOPOULOS: I know it's not in final form yet, it was in draft form. But, yes.
Q: When it was in final form.
MR. STEPHANOPOULOS: Yes, I have to find out -- I'll take the question, but I think --
Q: What is the status of the FBI potential, pending, whatever you want to call it review, investigation --
MR. STEPHANOPOULOS: I think they're going to take the final report as well and then make further decisions from there.
Q? So they haven't decided yet whether they are going to actually investigate?
MR. STEPHANOPOULOS: Well, they were -- I mean, I think that they were part of the discussions on Saturday.
Q: How so --
Q: How did this -- could you walk us through that, what exactly happened with that--
MR. STEPHANOPOULOS: I don't have all the details. I know that they were part of the discussions on Saturday with the accounting firm. I don't know if they actually had discussions with members of the travel office, but I know that they were brought in and that action was taken pursuant to that and that we are going to deliver the final report to them.
Q: When you say action pursuant to that -- I mean, pursuant to the FBI's involvement, a recommendation by the FBI? What was their involvement precisely on Saturday? Who asked them to come in? What was their role? Did they make recommendations --
MR. STEPHANOPOULOS: First of all, I refer you to the FBI. I will find out who actually called them, but I refer you to the FBI for their involvement.
Q: But they haven't had a formal investigation per se?
MR. STEPHANOPOULOS: I think they're waiting for our -- for the accounting report is the next step.
Q: George, this morning we were told in the briefing that the FBI found that it would "be prudent" to go forward with an investigation.
MR. STEPHANOPOULOS: And then the next step is making sure that they get -- there's no change in that. The next step is making sure they get the final report.
Q: Did they mean it would be prudent to go forward with their investigation, or would it be prudent for the White House to follow up with its own review? What was the input --
MR. STEPHANOPOULOS: I know that they are going to review the accounting report from the White House, which is the next step.
Q: But at this point, they have not made a judgment that there's any criminality that would require them to proceed with an investigation?
MR. STEPHANOPOULOS: The only next step is -- well, the next -- they want to review the report from the accounting firm. They will then make subsequent judgments after reviewing the report from the accounting firm.
Q: different from what were told this morning. We were told this morning that the FBI is going ahead with an investigation of these people --
MR. STEPHANOPOULOS: The next step in the investigation -- this is -- I think you're -- it's semantics here. I mean, the next step in the investigation is reviewing the accounting report. And the FBI can choose at any time to stop it at any time. The next step -- they are open to the next step in the investigation, which is to review the report of the accounting firm.
Q: The way you seem to be phrasing, you seem to be suggesting that the FBI has not decided for sure that they're willing to launch an investigation, or --
MR. STEPHANOPOULOS: I really do think we're getting into semantics here. The next -- their investigation -- the next step in their investigation is to review the accounting report. After they review the accounting report, they can then make other decisions and determinations based on that review.
Q: So it would be accurate to say they are already investigating?
MR. STEPHANOPOULOS: It would be accurate to say that we have talked to the FBI. They have been part of the discussions. This is a review and investigation. It would be accurate to say that they are going to review the accounting report, which is part of an investigation. Again, I think that this is -- we're getting into semantics.
Q: But what did they do Saturday, then, George? Did they just sit back and advise the accounting firm on what kinds of things to look for, or did they actually get their hands on and delve into this material themselves? I'm a little bit confused --
MR. STEPHANOPOULOS: Part of the problem with this whole discussion has been that one of the things the accounting firm found was that there weren't records to go over in many cases. That was one of the very real problems they discovered. There weren't accounting procedures of any kind. I do not know precisely what the FBI did every minute they were here on Saturday.
Q: How long were they here? Do you recall that?
MR. STEPHANOPOULOS: I just don't know. I can try and find out.
Q: Was the FBI contacted, George, because criminality was suspected? Ordinarily the FBI doesn't investigate shoddy accounting practices.
MR. STEPHANOPOULOS: Again -- I mean, I will find out exactly why the FBI was contacted. But clearly they came in. They were briefed. They were made part of this process and they would like to review the report of the accounting firm.
Q: But who called them in?
MR. STEPHANOPOULOS: I assume David Watkins did, and I'll just double-check.
Q: George, despite the strong language you've used to describe what went on in that office -- you and Dee Dee over the last two days -- do you have any qualms or regrets about how that language may have destroyed the reputations and careers of these seven people?
MR. STEPHANOPOULOS: I think that that's your language, not mine. I think that what --
Q: your quotes, George.
MR. STEPHANOPOULOS: That's not true, Deborah.
Q: The language you've used, in the judgment of many in this room, and myself, may have destroyed these people and made it impossible for them to get jobs like this in the future.
MR. STEPHANOPOULOS: Again, I think if you do a review of the transcript, I think that that's not true. I mean, I think most of the inflammatory language was in the questions. In the answers that were given -- in fact, in Dee Dee's brief yesterday she said several times that no criminal allegations are being made here at all. This was simply a matter of mismanagement.
Q: George, your correct about that except that there was a charge of overbilling, which you said -- you think that happened. And you acknowledged later in the afternoon that you couldn't establish that that was so. And there's also this: It was made clear yesterday that only two people had access to or any control over that bank account -- only two; and that the rest of the people were deemed to be subject to firing because, well, they'd been part of the place for a long time; there were too many of them anyway doing not enough work; and we thought it was time to make a change. And every time we pressed with questions about what exactly those who did not have their hands on the bank account had done that had to do with gross financial mismanagement with which they were all charged, you -- the answers came from that platform and elsewhere: Well, there were too many of them anyway; there wasn't enough for them to do; they were all in one way or another, quote, "involved in this," which is a very vague allegation.
And what the question seems to be is, was it fair to characterize everybody -- all seven of them -- with this gross mismanagement, financial sloppiness charge, when it is fairly clear that the bank account was handled by the two senior members of the team there and nobody else.
MR. STEPHANOPOULOS: They had the signatory responsibility over the bank account, that is true. There were lax procedures throughout the office. That is also true. It is a small office. It is also true that we feel this can be done in a more efficient manner. There is no question about that. But I think there is absolutely no question about what was also going on in this office. And if you review -- and we will try to provide the Peat Marwick report -- there is no question that there were serious questions here about the way this office was run, the way the affairs were being managed. And we believe we can do it in a better way and in a way that is more appropriate.
Q: Do you regret the loss of the institutional memory of that office -- its contacts around the world and its ability to perform under difficult circumstances for both the White House and the press?
MR. STEPHANOPOULOS: I think that's true. But that's far outweighed by the fact that the office was not being run in a professional manner and the money was not being handled in a professional manner.
Q: George, speaking of sloppy recordkeeping, I don't know anyone on the campaign plane who ever got a detailed accounting of the charges. I think most of us just got a charge on our American Express bill saying "signature on file," and had to then call up and hound Worldwide Travel to get some sort of detailed bill. I mean, did you hear any complaints from reporters about this during the campaign? And did you look into their accounting procedures at all before you selected them as an interim travel agency?
MR. STEPHANOPOULOS: Again, we've had no suggestion that they have problems with the accounting procedures at Worldwide as far as I know.
Q: You didn't hear any complaints from any reporters during the campaign about being overcharged or being charged for things that they didn't even know what they were?
MR. STEPHANOPOULOS: I frankly didn't, but I'm certain that there are mistakes at times. But it wasn't a pattern and practice, such as was discovered here.
Q: Okay. And the other thing is, Worldwide Travel is referring all press calls to the White House press office. Is that an arrangement that you made with them?
MR. STEPHANOPOULOS: Not that I know of. But they just might not feel comfortable talking to the press.
Q: I know, but how are they are going to doing business with the press --
Q: But do you feel all right having the White House Press Office represent a private company?
Q: How can this be? They're going to do all our travel, but -- talking to us? Are they living in the real world here?
MR. STEPHANOPOULOS: I'll double-check that. I haven't talked to anybody at Worldwide. I can double-check.
Q: Is it appropriate for you to speak in any event for a private company that --
MR. STEPHANOPOULOS: Well, I don't know that we'd be speaking for the private company. We were speaking about our arrangement with that company.
Q: What about the basic business questions you might ask about that company -- I mean --
MR. STEPHANOPOULOS: -- they can choose to answer them or not.
Q: refer it back to you?
MR. STEPHANOPOULOS: It's their choice to answer it or not.
Q: But they say you told them to do that -- not personally -- the White House Press Office.
Q: No, no, no they just referred calls to the White House Press Office. They didn't say --
Q: Well, I don't know what they told you, Susan. I know what they told me.
MR. STEPHANOPOULOS: I don't know what they told either one of you.
Q: They said that the White House Press Office told them and that -- they'll give you the number and so forth.
MR. STEPHANOPOULOS: I will check on it, but again, they can choose whether or not to comment to the press. And we certainly answer any questions that we can about the business arrangement.
Q: Are you speaking for that company? Should we --
MR. STEPHANOPOULOS: No, I do not -- no. No.
Q: address business questions about Worldwide to you?
MR. STEPHANOPOULOS: No. I speak for the President. This office speaks for the President.
Q: George, could you clarify the --
Q: morning flight --
MR. STEPHANOPOULOS: (Laughter.) But we will be handing out right timetables.
Q: Could you clarify the whole, if any, Harry Thomason connection with the charters and where does that fit into this mess?
MR. STEPHANOPOULOS: What's the question?
Q: The question is did he complain to someone on the White House staff about the fact that no other charter companies were allowed to bid for the services of traveling with the President?
MR. STEPHANOPOULOS: I think other charter companies, not his, did call him and say that they were not being allowed to bid on these.
Q: Did he call the President?
MR. STEPHANOPOULOS: I don't think he called the President. I think he had a conversation with people in the Travel Office.
Q: No, I think he had a conversation with --
Q: What's his standing to do that?
Q: are you saying he had no conversation with someone --
Q: Was he calling up as an -- calling out here, I'm an FOB, can I --
MR. STEPHANOPOULOS: He was just passing on the information, and then David Watkins took the appropriate action.
Q: Can I ask one more question about the --
Q: use Harry Thomason as a conduit to the White House? I mean is that what you're saying, Bill, that -- I mean --
MR. STEPHANOPOULOS: Bill? (Laughter.)
Q: Is that what you're saying -- that he was actually contacted by other airline agencies because they know that he's a friend of Bill's and that he can pick up the phone and have access to the White House?
MR. STEPHANOPOULOS: Well, I mean they were passing on information and they were saying that they tried to bid on a trip and they were told that they couldn't bid on the trip --
Q: Who was that, pray tell?
MR. STEPHANOPOULOS: I don't know which ones it was.
Q: Does he have any financial interest in this?
MR. STEPHANOPOULOS: None. And he's not -- and none of his companies are going to bid on any --.
Q: One of the things that was not made clear yesterday in any of the venues where this was discussed was whether or not you thoroughly investigated these charges that other people were not allowed to bid or that there were --
MR. STEPHANOPOULOS: I think we've had a -- quite a thorough investigation. There have been questions raised about this for several weeks. There were also questions raised by employees in our office who were reviewing the practices of the Travel Office pursuant to those questions. And before any action was taken we called in an accounting firm for review of all the practices. That accounting firm did a very thorough review over several days and found a pattern of practice that was just simply not acceptable. And we took action after that investigation.
Q: Was anybody from any other airline interviewed as part of this investigation? Or does this fall under the category as yesterday's senior administration official admitted, that the stories of kickbacks were simply hearsay?
MR. STEPHANOPOULOS: Well, again, those questions weren't necessarily the determining factor in whether the actions been taking. Questions were raised about the practices. other questions were raised by employees in the office. After it was reviewed by the accounting firm, there was certainly enough evidence developed to decide to take action. And that's exactly what happened.
Q: Beyond that, are you standing by today -- I'm getting the impression that it's no longer operative that you believe flatly that we were overbilled as was asserted yesterday from that podium?
MR. STEPHANOPOULOS: That's not what was asserted yesterday from the podium.
Q: Read the transcript. And it says --
MR. STEPHANOPOULOS: I think there may have been.
Q: No. Not what's in the transcript. The transcript says, we think that there has been some -- a serious overbilling of the press.
MR. STEPHANOPOULOS: They think has been. I mean we have made -- there is no final judgment on that yet. I can't tell you that there hasn't been.
Q: But you're not saying that there has?
Q: office -- get a refund. (Laughter.)
Q: We want a refund.
MR. STEPHANOPOULOS: We are going to continue to review it, we are going to continue to investigate it. There is not a final judgment on that. I cannot tell you that there has not been.
Q: And can you also --
Q: How are you going to know? I mean, the billing costs included filing space, ground transportation, a number of things not connected to the air charter, if you can, in fact, put a price on that, since it was a nonbid situation. How are you going to know if we were overbilled?
MR. STEPHANOPOULOS: We're going to look through that. And you compare it to standard costs in an area, and you try to do your best. Part of the problem, again, is that these records were not being kept, and that's one of the reasons we took action.
Q: Can you respond to the fact that at least two members of the people who were let go say none of the allegations of possible wrongdoing were brought up to them prior to their termination? That they were told that you simply wanted to downsize the office and reorganize it, and that all of this information about the FBI and the audits and that sort of thing came to them later in the day through news reports?
MR. STEPHANOPOULOS: I don't know anything about that. I don't know what conversations David Watkins has. But I do know that after the review by the accounting firm, we felt we had to take action and he did.
Q: I hate to interrupt this, but where does the process stand on the President making a decision about whether or not to resume nuclear tests?
MR. STEPHANOPOULOS: As you know, he has not made a decision yet. And the final decision memo has not been placed on his desk yet, either. I believe there will be further discussions over the next several days and a little beyond.
Q: Is there a -- I mean, there are some events coming up that would seem to force some action on this.
MR. STEPHANOPOULOS: No hard deadline at this time.
Q: George, let me just follow up one more thing on this.
Q: Is he meeting with any members of Congress on this, particularly any of 25 or 27 senators who have sent him, together or separately, letters asking him not to resume tests?
MR. STEPHANOPOULOS: I'm certain that he'll talk with members of Congress. I don't know that he has any scheduled right now.
Q: I need to return one more time --
Q: One other question on the nuclear testing before we get back -- the decision memo on this is due --
MR. STEPHANOPOULOS: I don't think we have a time on it now.
Q: George -- the Supreme Court do that -- (laughter) --
Q: Back one more time on the issue of the Travel Office, the Wall Street Journal quotes an administration official as saying that on Saturday in the discussions with the FBI, you -- oh, oh -- that you found signs of --
Q: going to have to share --
Q: lavish lifestyles, fancy houses, buying of racehorses and boats, and other extravagance that their salaries would not support. Did the White House find that on Saturday, and is that part of what you are alleging here?
MR. STEPHANOPOULOS: No. I can't say that that stuff hasn't happened, but it's not part of -- I don't think there's been any final conclusions --
Q: So as far as you know, there's been no evidence of -- I mean, you have not seen it -- or anybody you've talked to on this -- evidence of some lavish lifestyle -- double, multiple houses, racehorses -- that prompted you to start this investigation?
MR. STEPHANOPOULOS: I can't tell you that that's not happening, but that was not part of the review by Peat Marwick.
Q: And as far as you know, no one from the White House alleged this to the FBI?
MR. STEPHANOPOULOS: I just don't know. Brit, you do you got there?
Q: Santa Fe, New Mexico, AP. The scissors, clippers, and brush are going on display at Carl Vigil's hair styling salon. (Laughter.) But there's no hard evidence of Vigil's encounter with the Chief Executive. Vigil forget to save a few strands of President Clinton's hair. Quote -- "I should have done that, but I didn't," he said Tuesday. Vigil spent 45 minutes Monday with the President after Clinton spoke in Los Alamos. He shaved Clinton's sideburns and neck, then applied makeup to his face in a small room at the city's airport. Is that true? (Laughter.)
MR. STEPHANOPOULOS: I'd better not comment on that at this time. (Laughter.)
Q: And we were waiting at Los Alamos for a shave?
Q: "I worked on his jawline a little," said Vigil, 30. "I left a red spot on his face that I couldn't get out." (Laughter.) The sun had gotten to him a little too much. (Laughter.)
Q: This is a serious question. The question is did he have a haircut Monday in New Mexico before the haircut Tuesday?
MR. STEPHANOPOULOS: You're right. I'd better take this a lot more seriously than I'm taking it. No, he did not get his hair cut in New Mexico. I think he's talking there about a shave, from what I can tell. (Laughter.)
Q: Shaved his sideburns and neck --
Q: I'd like to make to you a request that I made to Dee Dee this morning, which is that you, having said that you were taking a number of questions here that you're going to get back to us on --
MR. STEPHANOPOULOS: How long was the FBI here? Who called them? Does Watkins have a financial relationship --
Q: My point is, is how you're going to get back to everyone. Last night it was a case of you, Dee Dee, apparently Mr. Eller, and the accountant from Peat Marwick holding a whisper session up in the back for selected reporters as opposed to the whole bunch, and discussing a number of things out of the report under cover of anonymity. I'm wondering if you're going to do it somewhat differently with the things that you get back to us on today.
MR. STEPHANOPOULOS: We will try and get you the factual questions. And I'm sure if you call Lorraine, she'll have all the answers. (Laughter.)
Q: Does Lorraine -- questions from the entire group -- all --
MR. STEPHANOPOULOS: We will make sure that Lorraine has all the information based on the questions we took here and if you call her she will be able to get you the answers.
Q: Why not post the answers to questions you take?
Q: How about an afternoon briefing --
MR. STEPHANOPOULOS: I don't think we need another briefing. We'll make sure you have access to all the answers.
Q: follow Frank's -- why don't you post answers to the questions.
MR. STEPHANOPOULOS: Okay, that's fine. Easy. I think Lorraine would like that, too.
Q: By the way, do you plan another background session tonight for the nets and the wires?
MR. STEPHANOPOULOS: No.
Q: Why not? (Laughter.)
Q: He's getting a haircut.
Q: You need a haircut, George.
MR. STEPHANOPOULOS: I know. I've got to wait --
Q: Leo, and then we'll end this.
MR. STEPHANOPOULOS: Okay.
Q: Several weeks ago, Billy Dale said that since January 20th, he had tried, not once, but many times to set up a meeting with the White House Press Office and the White House Correspondent's Association to go over various cost-cutting options to reduce the price of travel, and had never been able to get that meeting from you folks. Is that a fact? Have you checked as to whether --
MR. STEPHANOPOULOS: I mean, he -- David Watkins is responsible for administration and I think that he -- David Watkins had several discussions.
Q: No, but I'm asking whether it's true that Billy Dale specifically tried to get a meeting with the White House Press Office weeks ago to discuss cost cutting possibilities.
MR. STEPHANOPOULOS: Not to my knowledge, no.
Q: Can you check on that?
MR. STEPHANOPOULOS: I can tell you that nobody every contacted me and Dee Dee's saying nobody over contacted her so.
Q: Let me ask as a follow-up. You mentioned that in the course of several days preceding the Saturday meeting members of your staff had begun to raise questions about the operation of --
MR. STEPHANOPOULOS: Not members of my staff. I said that members of the administration staff. There were, of course, people that dealt with --
Q: I thought you said Press Office --
MR. STEPHANOPOULOS: No, I didn't say Press Office.
Q: Let me just follow up if I may. My question is at any time prior to Saturday was there an attempt made to call in Billy and his people and to say what about this, what about that?
MR. STEPHANOPOULOS: Oh, I'm certain there was. I'm sure David Watkins talked to them often.
Q: George, can you document that prior to Saturday, Watkins had raised specific questions --
MR. STEPHANOPOULOS: I don't know about specific. He certainly had conversations with them and he went over the stuff with Billy?
Q: With each of the individuals who were fired?
MR. STEPHANOPOULOS: Not necessarily, no.
Q: So in other words people were fired without being given an opportunity to defend themselves?
MR. STEPHANOPOULOS: Well, again, I think that David Watkins has laid out the rationale for the decision he made. He made it after a full review of the operations of that office by Peat Marwick.
Q: So you have no reservations about the fairness of this action?
MR. STEPHANOPOULOS: Well, I believe it was the appropriate action.
Q: George, is serious consideration being given to disbanding the office entirely, as has been suggested this morning by one White House official who said that they would turn it over to the White House Correspondents' Association?
MR. STEPHANOPOULOS: I mean, if you guys want to petition for that. (Laughter.)
Q: No, I'm just asking if that's a serious point of discussion, because one White House Official went to various members of the White House Correspondents' Association today and said we'll just turn it over to you.
MR. STEPHANOPOULOS: Well, if you have suggestions -- I mean, we're certainly willing to listen to them. It's not what I think is planned right now.
THE PRESS: Thank you.
END 2:15 P.M. EDT
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/269321