Press Briefing by Joe Lockhart
The Briefing Room
1:11 P.M. EST
MR. LOCKHART: I have an announcement to make. Can I start today with a personnel announcement? Seated to my right, to your left, is the newest Deputy Press Secretary, Deputy Assistant to the President, Jake Siewert. Most of you in this room know him. For those of you who don't, he served the last two years for the Communications Director for the National Economic Council -- Gene Sperling's effective press spokesman. Before that he was on the Clinton-Gore Campaign in New Hampshire and Tennessee. He worked before that here at the White House for a couple of years in the first term with Mark Gearan in the Communications Office.
He started in Washington as the Communications Director for the Democratic Governors' Association. So it is fortuitous we announce his joining our staff today.
Q: Who is going to be Gene's spokesman now?
MR. LOCKHART: Gene. Gene will assume the role as Gene and Jake. (Laughter.)
Q: Has he worked out with --
MR. LOCKHART: Gene is currently looking, so if there is anyone in this room who is interested, let us know. (Laughter.)
Q: Is he going to share Barry's office, or how is that going to work?
MR. LOCKHART: That is a very personal question I'm not going to answer.
Q: Are you ready for general questions?
MR. LOCKHART: No, so let's just stay on this for a while. Sam, let's have a general question.
Q: On Friday, when the President said he thought he would be a mistake to extend the Kosovo deadline, what did he mean by that?
MR. LOCKHART: Anyone who watched television yesterday knows what, Sam, what you think of this, but let me address the question more generally. The talks were extended beyond Saturday at the request of both parties, and after the recommendation of the negotiators. I think that everyone felt that, given the fact that both parties wanted extra time and that the reason they're there negotiating, doing these hard negotiations is to try to bring peace and autonomy to Kosovo; that it was in the best interest of the process and the parties to extend for a few days. And that's what they've done.
Q: May I just follow up? There's one story that says that the United States does not want to extend the deadline, but deferred to our NATO allies, who did. Can you tell us whether that's correct?
MR. LOCKHART: Well, what I know is that both parties were interested in a couple extra days. The negotiators recommended we do that and we took their recommendation.
Q: Why did the President issue what amounts to an ultimatum on Friday if the situation was so fluid? Was the President not informed of what the negotiating posture was?
MR. LOCKHART: The President was well-informed of what was going on, but it is a fluid situation and we have to make what we think are decisions that best promote the interests of the parties and peace in the region, and we've made that decision.
Q: Would he extend it again, if necessary?
MR. LOCKHART: I can't speculate as to what's going to happen tomorrow.
Q: Well, the Serbians and the Kosovars certainly wouldn't have anything to fear from a new deadline, would they?
MR. LOCKHART: Well, I'll leave it to them to discuss what they fear and what they don't fear.
Q: Well, is there any credible threat of force now --
MR. LOCKHART: I leave it to them to -- and if they don't believe there's a credible threat of force, then they'll have to make that decision.
Q: Do you think the President's credibility has been damaged?
MR. LOCKHART: No, I don't.
Q: Do you have any day when you'll submit actual legislation for Social Security reform to Congress?
MR. LOCKHART: No, I don't. I expect the subject of Social Security -- what we do with the surplus, how we pay down the national debt, how we save Medicare -- will be high on the list, though, when the President meets with the bipartisan congressional leaders tomorrow.
Q: Does the President want input in writing the legislation itself from the Republicans? I mean, is that what's holding it up at this point?
MR. LOCKHART: Sure, I think the President has long said that we need to move forward in a way that best advances the interests of Social Security, Medicare. And I think the way we're going to do that is working with Democrats and Republicans.
Q: In light of what you've told us about the Kosovo negotiations and all of what we've been discussing -- in light of that, was it a mistake for the President to put down such a heavy marker on Friday? Might he not have said something other than it would have been a mistake to extend the deadline?
MR. LOCKHART: I think what the President said best reflected the thinking at that moment. The situation, as we've said, is fluid. We're going to do what we think is in the best interest of peace, the best interest of the parties there.
Q: Joe, would you comment on the contempt citation against Secretary Babbitt today?
MR. LOCKHART: I don't have any. I would refer you to the Justice Department, which will handle that issue.
Q: Joe, on Friday, a senior, senior administration official was telling us late into the day --
MR. LOCKHART: Two seniors?
Q: Two seniors.
MR. LOCKHART: Two seniors. Two people or just someone who is senior senior?
Q: I only talked to one.
MR. LOCKHART: Okay, got you.
Q: A senior administration official involved in national security affairs was telling everyone late on Friday that there would be no negotiations after the deadline. Something changed that the United States was not expecting. What changed?
MR. LOCKHART: I think if you look at where the parties were and you look at the fact that -- and any negotiation, it's fluid and parties positions change -- you'll understand that where we were Saturday morning is not where we were Friday afternoon. And I don't think it's that hard to figure out.
Q: Help me figure this out. What changed? Was it the Serbian side? Was it the Kosovar side? What materially changed that caused --
MR. LOCKHART: I don't see that it serves any purpose as far as promoting the interests of these negotiations for me to talk about what's going on over there. There are some fine people in France now who are able to help you, who are coming out and briefing the press on a regular basis; I'm going to leave it to them.
Q: But isn't there a danger that deadlines won't be taken seriously if they're not stuck to?
MR. LOCKHART: I think there is a more and real danger that if we don't do what's in the best interest of the parties in promoting the peace, and that's what we're doing in this case.
Q: Did any ally back out, Joe?
MR. LOCKHART: I don't have any comment on that.
Q: Joe, nobody that I've heard here is arguing against a negotiation and doing what is necessary. The question is whether it was wise to publicly state -- put the prestige of the United States of America behind a deadline which didn't mean anything.
MR. LOCKHART: Many of you have already made up your mind on that subject, and I'm not going to spend any more time trying to change it.
Q: Joe, is the effort to get Mike Espy to run against Trent Lott, is that the new White House strategy for revenge against the Republicans?
MR. LOCKHART: First off, I don't know much more than what I've read in the paper about that. I think Mike Espy's a fine public servant, would be a formidable candidate no matter what office he decided to run for. But I haven't heard that he's made any such decision.
Q: Joe, why did the President, when he was governor, allow his friends in Health Management Associates, to market prisoners' blood from the Arkansas Cummings prison unit to Canada, where the major media all over Canada are reporting 2,000 recipients of this blood got AIDS and 60,000 other Canadians contracted hepatitis C.
MR. LOCKHART: I'm not an avid reader of the Canadian media, so I'd have to look into that.
Q: Well, it's also beginning to hit in the United States --
MR. LOCKHART: Okay, well, I'll look into that.
Q: -- and I wondered -- on Wednesday morning, at the National Press Club, Dr. Michael Golster, (phonetic) who worked at Cummings, together with attorneys representing the dying Canadians and former prisoners, will hold a news conference at the National Press Building. I wondered, will the White House have anybody there to tell your side of this terrible development?
MR. LOCKHART: Not that I know of.
Q: Joe, following back on Espy quickly, does the White House push this effort for him to run against Trent Lott?
MR. LOCKHART: Oh, I think any -- candidate recruitment is obviously something that's very important. We want the strongest possible Democrats around the country to stand up and compete, whether it's a Senate race, a governor's race, a mayor's race. But I don't have any particular information about what's going on in Mississippi. So I think if Mr. Espy wants to run he'll get strong support from here.
Q: What is the President going to say, or his lawyers, going to say to Judge Susan Weber Wright about this move to move forward in a possible contempt citation?
MR. LOCKHART: I'll leave it to the President's lawyers to address that.
Q: Does the President feel that he was in contempt?
MR. LOCKHART: I'll leave it for the President's lawyers to address that.
Q: How was the Kosovo decision made by the President? Was there a meeting over the weekend with his national security advisors? Can you explain -- give me a little detail on how the President made that decision?
MR. LOCKHART: The President was in touch with his national security team through Sandy Berger, his National Security Advisor. He also spoke several times on the phone with the Secretary of State who was in France.
Q: And this required, obviously, an affirmative decision by the President to back off of his ultimatum on Friday?
MR. LOCKHART: The President stayed in very close touch with his national security team and was very aware of the situation on the ground.
Q: Joe, how hard will the President push to make sure that tobacco money is used by the states for anti-smoking and health purposes? A bunch of the governors came out this morning and said there's really no need for it because that's what they all intend to do anyway.
MR. LOCKHART: I think under the current law money is -- the federal government is required to recoup money that's spent on -- in Medicaid funds. The majority of money in Medicaid -- the burden is borne by the federal government -- the current law requires the federal government to recoup that. And as part of the state settlement the President has said he's willing to work with states as long as there's some guarantee that the states will use that money for health care programs, for programs that reduce teen smoking and for help with helping farmers who are in transition.
So I think he's willing to work with them, but under the current statute, the federal government is required to recoup the money.
Q: So how can he work with them if the statute is clear?
MR. LOCKHART: The statute is clear, but we can work toward waiving that requirement if the money is put toward the appropriate uses, like health care and reducing teen smoking.
Q: He'll take the state's word for it? If a state pledges that it will do so --
MR. LOCKHART: That's not quite that simple. I think we're going to have to work with Congress in getting a waiver, and I think we need some commitments about how the money will be used.
Q: So the President doesn't have the power himself to make that waiver?
MR. LOCKHART: No.
Q: Now, California's Governor Davis was saying that California did not get any reimbursement on Medicaid funds, so why should they have to give part to the federal government if that wasn't part of their settlement?
MR. LOCKHART: I'm sorry, I'm not following.
Q: You're saying that the reason that -- the portion the federal government claims some influence over is that that was spent under federal health programs, right?
MR. LOCKHART: Yes.
Q: He's saying they didn't get any money for that, it was specifically taken out of their settlement.
MR. LOCKHART: I'm not certain on California versus other states. I mean, HHS can tell you with more certainly on what the formula is. But countrywide, the majority of the money for the health care costs come from Medicare, and the majority of the money on Medicaid costs comes from the federal government.
Q: Now, the criteria you're talking about -- farmers, health, anti-smoking -- those are the President's criteria, those are not in the law, are they?
MR. LOCKHART: There is no criteria in the law. This is something that is done outside the law. There was a settlement among the states, but the law is still the law, and the law says the federal government is required to recoup this money.
Q: But you're saying the President wants to waive it if they spend the money on anti-smoking, health and for farmers.
MR. LOCKHART: The President has said he is willing to work with the states and if they can use the money for that purpose, we can look at a way of waiving the requirement to recoup the money.
Q: If the states promise to spend it the way he wants to spend it, he will try to get Congress to make a waiver?
MR. LOCKHART: That is correct.
Q: Joe, since the President has so often been photographed carrying his Bible to and from church, you can assure us, can't you, Joe, that he would never use the Bible as a mere prop, but that he reads the Bible and is familiar with such parables as the unforgiving servant?
MR. LOCKHART: I can assure you that the President reads his Bible, yes.
Q: All right, now, wait a minute. I have a follow-up here.
MR. LOCKHART: Shock -- (laughter.)
Q: In this connection, with the parable of the unforgiving servant, Fox News this weekend featured the psychiatrist, Dr. Barbara Bottelino, (phonetic) who has written the President --
MR. LOCKHART: I missed that.
Q: -- asking for a pardon of her perjury of giving her patient what the President got from Monica Lewinsky. How can the President ask forgiveness of the American people when he's going to deny forgiveness to this psychiatric provider?
MR. LOCKHART: There is a process for that and she should follow the process.
Q: She has already done it, Joe. She's written the President. Is the President going to turn her down?
MR. LOCKHART: I have no comment on that since I haven't seen anything that she's written.
Q: Joe, on another topic -- (laughter.) A lot of the governors apparently --
MR. LOCKHART: -- from the New Testament. (Laughter.)
Q: You do read the Bible, then, Joe, right?
Q: A lot of the governors were demanding that the federal government meet its share of special education funding before the President proposes, as he has already, a whole bunch of new education programs. I'm wondering what is his response going to be to that, how is he going to try to -- or is he going to try to assure --
MR. LOCKHART: Let me look at that, because I'm not aware of any special education issue between the states and the federal government. I think the President laid out his ideas for what the federal government should do as far as lowering class size, building new schools, and also as far as holding states accountable to certain standards and results. But on special ed, I'll just have to look into it.
Q: Could you take that on special ed?
MR. LOCKHART: Sure.
Q: Supposedly, Head Start, they were saying that they want those programs funded first before --
Q: Was the President moved at all by what the governors said about cutting the strings that he wants attached to the additional education funding?
MR. LOCKHART: Well, I think the President believes and has believed, as a former governor, that the place where the majority of educational decisions are made are on the state and local level. And that will continue. I think what the President has said in his State of the Union and in the budget is that it's time to stop throwing good money after under-performing schools and schools that can't meet standards. It's time to make people reach a standard as far as what they expect to get from the federal government.
It's not about how they teach. It's not about how they make the decision of how they're going to run their school. It's about expecting some results.
Q: Governor Leavitt said that the states -- or certainly his state welcomes additional federal funding for education, but in terms of being a limited partner and not a managing partner. They feel that the federal government is trying to impose its will on the state administration of education.
MR. LOCKHART: I think they clearly haven't taken a close enough look at what the President is talking about. The President is talking about looking around the country, finding the best practices, trying to replicate best practices, looking at programs that work. But the bottom line is results. Schools, local communities, local jurisdictions will continue to have the ability to decide how they want to implement education, education reform. But the bottom line is the federal government for too long has put money into local school districts that are aren't performing and it's time to start focusing on results.
Q: Is it just results? I mean, is it just some bottom line result? Isn't the President also suggesting to people the way they should proceed, what kinds of students they should work with, what kinds of programs should be set up for them?
MR. LOCKHART: I think the President has said -- and he's been saying for years -- that we need to look at a state like North Carolina, where things are working, and say, what can we draw from North Carolina, from programs that were started on the state and local level and how we can replicate that around the country. But there's no one in Washington that's trying to tell people actually how they have to run their school districts. We're saying that it's time to start demanding results.
Q: Aren't there some things, though -- when you did the State of the Union and you put out a little briefing paper, there were three or four steps on various things, including students that haven't met promotion standards for promotion.
MR. LOCKHART: Sure.
Q: Isn't federal government laying out some things that it will insist the states do, step by step, rather than just saying you should do a better job on this front?
MR. LOCKHART: No, they're expecting results. And one of the results is that we stop moving people along before they're ready to move along. And how states do that is, they can work off of the models that have worked in other communities around the country, they can come up with their own novel approach. But what the federal government is saying is, it's time to stop allowing people just to keep promoting those, even though they're not ready for the next level of education.
Q: How do you decide, though, whether they are or are not doing what you want them to do in order to get the money?
MR. LOCKHART: Well, we're going to have to work with states and local governments, but I think there are clear standards that schools will have to meet in order to qualify for some of the federal funds that are available. You know, it's not just you have to meet these standards or you're not getting it, we have -- I think the President has tripled the after-school budget to work with the students who need the most help, to give students who need extra help the attention they need in order to get the skills they need to move on.
Q: Joe, this is the week for certification. Since the President is going away on Thursday, when does he expect to get the report from the states --
MR. LOCKHART: I don't know what day exactly, but I expect sometime by the middle to late in the week he'll get a recommendation from the Secretary of State, and then we'll have some news for you.
Q: Can I ask a second question? There have been a lot of people who have criticized the certification program, claiming it doesn't lead anywhere. Would the White House be interested in trying to see if, with Congress, could come up with a new policy? He seems to get more enemies for the U.S. than results accomplished.
MR. LOCKHART: I think we've said in the past that certification does create some obstacles, but it is the law of the land and we will continue to work through the process.
Q: Is there a way to try to change the law of the land?
MR. LOCKHART: There has been some discussion, but I don't know that there is any consensus that's been built on an alternative process.
Q: Joe, to what extent did Russian opposition play a part in the President's change of heart on Kosovo?
MR. LOCKHART: We spoke about what Russia believes and I don't know that the President has had a change of heart.
Q: Was that a factor in the decision to extend the deadline?
MR. LOCKHART: We've said, the President said that we believe that Russia has played a very constructive role so far in this process, but we do differ on some things. And if we need to move forward based on our interests, based on NATO's interest, we will move forward if air strikes become necessary. The decision to move forward -- or, excuse me -- the decision to extend for several days was made at the request of the parties and the negotiators.
Q: Do you expect, Joe, that this will be a major topic at tomorrow's meeting with the congressional leaders?
MR. LOCKHART: I expect they will take some time to discuss the latest from the talks and the overall situation in Kosovo.
Q: What other topics do you expect to come up tomorrow?
MR. LOCKHART: Well, I expect that the President will want to talk about his legislative agenda, which is reserving the majority of the surplus for Social Security, Medicare and USA accounts, which he's talked about; education, health care bill of rights. I think there may be some discussion of the minimum wage. I'm not sure everyone noticed, but the Speaker of the House yesterday on Sunday talk shows talked about how he thought we could get a minimum wage increase this year, which is welcome news from the Republican leadership. And I think the Republican Party will bring down some of the items that they believe are at the top of their agenda and we'll see where we're going to go.
Q: -- subject of that meeting, the President, in his post-impeachment remarks, made general statements about wanting to work together, bipartisanship and such. Is he going to be really very specific about saying, look, I know we've had a rough month or so, or couple months here --
Q: A year. (Laughter.)
MR. LOCKHART: I think the President will repeat what he said publicly, which is, we have a very aggressive agenda, we have important work to do, the public expects us to get down to business and that's what we need to do.
Q: Joe, is he going to be specific and name a few pieces of legislation which there seems to be agreement, or is he going to set up separate priorities so we can actually get some things done?
MR. LOCKHART: I think there will probably be some discussion of particular pieces of legislation. For example, the Kennedy-Jeffords bill I think has a lot of bipartisan support and it would be useful to get going and get to work on something like that. So I think there will be both a broad discussion of some of the agenda items and I expect some particular issues will also come up.
Q: Joe, as the President's Press Secretary --
Q: My turn, please? He's had two. Thank you. There have been several stories about the Russians selling very high-tech, lethal military equipment to Iraq in violation of the embargo. And this equipment could threaten the U.S.
MR. LOCKHART: I think the Russian Foreign Minister has denied those reports, and we have no information to lead us to believe that they're true.
Q: Do you believe the Russian Foreign Minister?
MR. LOCKHART: We have no information at our disposal that indicates that that story is true.
Q: Joe, since the trial, some Republicans have said that they have problems with being able to trust the President. Can he be expected to say or do anything, send a message through their leaders to them -- in fact, some of the leaders themselves have made comments along those lines -- to allay those concerns?
MR. LOCKHART: I think the best thing the President can do is get down to business, work on the issues that the American public wants people in Washington to do it on a bipartisan basis, and everything else will have to take care of itself.
Q: That's how he will respond to questions?
MR. LOCKHART: I think that's the way he believes is the best way to move forward, and I expect that if anyone wants to put a question to him like that, they'll get a response like that just described.
Q: What does the President have to say about the Juanita Broaddrick story?
MR. LOCKHART: The President has nothing to say and I have nothing to say beyond what his -- or in addition to what his lawyer said in a statement.
Q: I'm sorry, what was the last --
MR. LOCKHART: I said I have nothing to say beyond what the President's attorney said on Friday in a written statement.
Q: The President's attorney, if I have heard it correctly, denied flatly that any assault had taken place.
MR. LOCKHART: That would be a proper reading of the statement.
Q: Joe, as the President's Press Secretary, were you dismayed or were you resigned to the inevitable that both The Wall Street Journal and page one of The Washington Post have finally followed the Internet and talk radio and are reporting the Broaddrick rape charge?
MR. LOCKHART: I think it's a sad day when news organizations follow the lead of Internet and talk radio, and some of the parts thereof.
Q: All talk radio, Joe?
MR. LOCKHART: Some of.
Q: Joe, if the Republican leadership were gracious enough to open the door to a minimum-wage increase, would the President in turn be bipartisan and say there's a possibility for an across-the-board tax cut?
MR. LOCKHART: Well, I don't think the President believes an across-the-board tax cut is the best way to approach what we do with the surplus. I think, as the President has said, he's got a plan to use it for Social Security, for Medicare, and then for targeted tax cuts. I think we believe that's the right way to go. We have a fundamental disagreement with some in the Republican Party. There are others in the Republican Party who have a different view, but I don't expect the President to be moving on that subject.
Q: Joe, will tomorrow's meeting be the first substantive meeting the President will have with Hastert, or have they had a relationship?
MR. LOCKHART: They've spoken on the phone, and I'm sure they've -- in his time in Congress, met, but I think it's the first sit-down as the Speaker of the House.
Q: You think they have met?
MR. LOCKHART: Yes.
Q: Joe, on Hastert, the Republicans have indicated an area where they may compromise and adopt part of the President's program. Is the President thinking of offering them some kind of a concession --
MR. LOCKHART: I think the President looks forward to having the Republicans come in and lay out where they want to go this year, put forth their agenda, and we'll see where the conversations go.
Q: Joe, has the President by any chance, during this Governors' Meeting, talked with the Governors from Texas and Florida, by any chance -- the Bush brothers?
MR. LOCKHART: There was a dinner Saturday night, so I -- my guess is there was a receiving line, right?
Q: Last night.
MR. LOCKHART: Last night, I'm sorry. Sunday night. So, my guess is, he probably did.
Q: He commended Jeb Bush this morning.
Q: Do you know if they talked anything about 2000?
MR. LOCKHART: I sincerely doubt it.
Q: Late last week, there was an announcement of, I think, a record trade deficit in the U.S. Isn't that a setback for the administration's trade agenda this year, on fast-track and a number of the other free trade items?
MR. LOCKHART: I think if you look at the numbers, particularly later in the year, the numbers were declining on trade deficit. There's clearly some fallout from some of the problems, the international financial crisis, particularly Europe and, to a smaller degree, Latin America. But I think we're beginning to see some turn on that. There's a lot of work that needs to be done, but I don't see the numbers as a repudiation of our trade policy.
Q: Well, are you concerned that it's going to give some impetus to protectionists here in the country or people that oppose the administration's trade policy?
MR. LOCKHART: No, I think that we've continued to make the case that one of the most effective ways to create new jobs is through increasing our exports around the world and we'll continue to do that.
Q: Joe, would you describe tomorrow's deadline on Kosovo as firm or is there room for slippage? (Laughter.)
MR. LOCKHART: I'm not going to speculate on what will happen tomorrow.
Q: The European Union today in a joint statement calls for an open trial and a fair trial for Mr. Ocalan and also for a political solution of the Kurdish problem in Turkey. Does the U.S. subscribe to this statement?
MR. LOCKHART: Well, we believe that the trial offers an opportunity to Turkey to show the European community, the rest of the world, that they can provide due process in an open and transparent trial. So we think it's an opportunity and it's our hope that they'll do that.
Q: At the same time, the allegations in the American press and in the international press about the U.S. involvement in the apprehension of Mr. Ocalan continue. And at the same time in the Turkish press today we have some allegations that Mr. Ocalan stated during the interrogation that Greece provided him with military assistance. Do you have anything on that?
MR. LOCKHART: I don't have anything on the second part, I wasn't aware of that issue. On the first part, I'll just repeat what I said last week, which is, the U.S. had no involvement in the apprehension or transport of Mr. Ocalan.
Q: Senator Torricelli says he thinks the Clintons are planning to move to New York after the President's term is over. Is that correct?
MR. LOCKHART: He clearly knows more than I do about that subject -- or less than I do -- but I don't know that. (Laughter.)
Q: And you haven't asked the President one way or the other?
MR. LOCKHART: I have not.
Q: Do you want to take a guess?
MR. LOCKHART: No.
Q: Thank you.
MR. LOCKHART: Thank you.
END 1:40 P.M. EST
William J. Clinton, Press Briefing by Joe Lockhart Online by Gerhard Peters and John T. Woolley, The American Presidency Project https://www.presidency.ucsb.edu/node/271227