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Press Briefing by Joe Lockhart

October 05, 1998

The Briefing Room

1:51 P.M. EDT

MR. LOCKHART: Hello, hello. Let me do some business first -- besides, welcome to the briefing, Helen.

A couple of pieces of business for this afternoon. The President, when he returns from the fundraiser, will be joined by Senator Daschle and Representative Gephardt. They will meet in the Oval Office to discuss legislative strategy for the week; discuss the need to find a way to push through the education agenda, including 100,000 teachers and the appropriations bill -- I think particularly Patty Murray's amendment that's before the Senate now; HMO bill of rights; environment; IMF.

After that meeting they will come outside the Oval and make a short statement -- the three of them -- to you. And that is the only addition to the schedule.

Q: The three of them?

Q: What time is that again?

MR. LOCKHART: I think that will be about 3:00 p.m.

Q: You said the three of them will come out and make a statement?

MR. LOCKHART: Yes. Yes. The President will come out, yes, make a statement on legislative -- outside the Oval.

Q: Do you mean in the Rose Garden?

Q: Joe, the meeting will start at 3:00 p.m.?

MR. LOCKHART: I believe they'll be back somewhere around 2:30 p.m. -- so 3:00 p.m, 3:15 p.m., yes.

Q: You mean they're coming out to the Rose Garden?

MR. LOCKHART: Well, I'm not sure of the exact location. I think it's somewhere in the Oval. I believe it's open.

Q: Open press?


Q: Are you suggesting that they're going to have some new strategy that you hadn't thought of yet?

MR. LOCKHART: No, I'm suggesting that they're going to talk about how important it is to get the business done, to get the government's business done. We have five days left in this congressional session. We have two appropriations bills here, out of 13. And there's a lot of work that has to be done.

Q: Is he going to talk about the impeachment?

Q: But you don't know where this is going to happen?

MR. LOCKHART: I believe they will set it up somewhere behind the Oval, outside.

Q: Outside?

MR. LOCKHART: Yes, outside.

Q: You going to discuss impeachment proceedings?

MR. LOCKHART: No. Secondly, let me just tell you about a phone call the President made this morning -- excuse me, the President received this morning a call from President Yeltsin. President Yeltsin briefed the President on the diplomatic mission of Foreign Minister Ivanov and the Defense Minister in Belgrade over the weekend.

The President made several points to President Yeltsin, including he was concerned that Milosevic was playing the classic game of making false promises designed to remove international pressure. He informed President Yeltsin that Dick Holbrooke was dispatched to Belgrade to emphasize the importance of immediate and full compliance with the international communities' demands. He discussed Kofi Annan's report, which showed President Milosevic and the Serbs not to be in compliance with U.N. Security Council Resolution 1199. He made the point that we don't wish to use force, but what happens next depends on President Milosevic.

Finally, he said President Milosevic's compliance with U.N. requirements must be verifiable, tangible and irreversible.

Q: Did Yeltsin say anything about his opposition to the use of force?

MR. LOCKHART: That should come as no surprise. President Yeltsin has articulated that view publicly and I'll leave it to the Russians to characterize his side. But he did express his view, his reluctance on the issue of use of force.

Q: Joe, what would make it irreversible?

MR. LOCKHART: Well, I think complying completely. I mean, U.N. Security Council Resolution 1199 asks for several things. One is an immediate cease fire; two is a withdrawal of Serb security forces; three is immediate and full access to the region of humanitarian agencies, and the requirements that come with that, to the people of Kosovo; and, four, a real-time set dialogue that will allow the Kosovor Albanians substantial self-rule and will allow them to create an environment where they feel they can return to their homes safely.

Q: Well, did Yeltsin want to know what the terms were for a possible settlement? I mean, Yeltsin called, right?


Q: And what was his purpose?

MR. LOCKHART: His purpose was to brief the President on the diplomatic mission that occurred over the weekend.

Q: And what did he say?

MR. LOCKHART: Well, he briefed him. You know, the Russians, as they've said publicly, have said that President Milosevic has come into some sort of compliance, that he's done some things. But the President made it clear that this isn't a time for half measures, it isn't a time for promises; it's a time for full compliance.

Q: Joe, did anything that Yeltsin said today in any way delay the movement that NATO is making toward possible military action? Did it make it less likely, anything Yeltsin have to say make military action in Kosovo less likely?

MR. LOCKHART: I think what's important here is what President Milosevic does. He is the one now who can come into full compliance with the U.N. resolution; or he can continue to make half statements, have some movement, but will not fulfill his promises. So that's what's important here.

Q: And does anything that Yeltsin had to say serve to indicate that Milosevic is more likely to come into full compliance?

MR. LOCKHART: Well, again, as I say, I think the President stressed the idea that we've been down this road before and that only full compliance which is verifiable and irreversible will satisfy the international community.

Q: Joe, on another subject, is the White House grateful for the recommendation against impeachment from President Ford, even though he pardoned Richard Nixon, who Mrs. Clinton worked so diligently and so skillfully to get impeached?

MR. LOCKHART: I think what was important about the former President's comments was the area where he is in agreement with us -- (laughter) -- which is that nothing in this case or on behalf of the President and his actions reaches a standard, a reasonable standard of impeachment.

So I think it was a voice of reason on this subject that agrees with the position we've been making for weeks.

Q: To follow that up, Chairman Hyde is widely perceived to be a very fair man. Does the White House share or reject that assessment?

MR. LOCKHART: I think Chairman Hyde has a reputation for being fair and for being non-partisan. I think, unfortunately, the process today has shown indications that it's not a process that's fair -- and it's not fair and it's partisan. But we believe that Chairman Hyde is someone who has a good reputation and we hope that as they make their decisions to move forward that they can keep those things in mind.

Q: Joe, the majority council is urging the judiciary committee to add misprision of a felony to the counts of impeachment against the President. Did the President have a legal obligation to tell Judge Wright that the Lewinsky affidavit was perjurious?

MR. LOCKHART: I'm not a lawyer, so I can't speak to what the legal obligations are. And that is a technical question and I'm sure Jim Kennedy can help you with that.

Q: What do you think of the notion that the majority council is considering or is urging the committee to add impeachment allegations against the President?

MR. LOCKHART: Well, I think that they're putting the cart before the horse. We've had three or four weeks now of every week, conveniently timed before the weekend, of dumping out documents and secret grand jury material.

We've now had four hours or so of opening statements and have yet to spend a minute talking about what is a reasonable standard for impeachment. So I think that's where they should focus their first attention, and not on how many counts you're going to be talking about or what the exact details are.

Q: What is a reasonable standard, Joe?

Q: -- the President today becomes only the third U.S. President in U.S. history to face a formal impeachment inquiry. Is he worried that this will overshadow his accomplishments when the history of this administration is written?

MR. LOCKHART: I think what the President is focused on is the job he was sent here to do. I talked to him this morning. He is not spending any time focusing on what's going on up on the Hill today. He spent a good part of the weekend working on the international financial issues that he'll talk about later today. We had a meeting with the economic team on Saturday.

The President spent a good bit of time reading this weekend, based on that meeting. The team prepared some documents for him. He spent some time on Kosovo. So that's what his focus is. It's not on --

Q: So you're not telling us that he's not interested in his fate?

MR. LOCKHART: I'm telling you that when he came to work this morning, he wasn't focusing on what was going on on Capitol Hill today.

Q: Is he calling members on this issue, still?

MR. LOCKHART: Oh, sure, he's been talking to members since --

Q: This last weekend?

Q: How come he's not focusing on it?


Q: Well, then how can you say he's not focusing on it?

Q: Joe, this last weekend? Joe, I'm sorry to --

MR. LOCKHART: Did he make calls this weekend? I don't know. I don't know for sure. But I think there's a difference between focusing on your job and also reaching out and talking to members. And that he continues to do. And he talks to members all the time on a wide variety of subjects.

Q: But on the impeachment subject he's talking -- he's talking to members about impeachment, still? That's an ongoing, active process?

MR. LOCKHART: It is an ongoing, active process.

Q: Today? Did he talk to them today?

MR. LOCKHART: I don't believe so. But he will be -- he will see Senators Daschle and Gephardt. I don't know that the subject will come up. But I don't want to leave you with the impression that he has spent no time on this. But he has focused on things like the international economic situation they'll be talking about, and Kosovo and the appropriations process.

Q: If I can just finish this line up?


Q: What is he saying to the members of Congress vis-a-vis impeachment?

MR. LOCKHART: Well, those conversations are private. So I'm not going to --

Q: Aside from President Clinton's personal dealings with Congress, can you tell us specifically what actions the White House is taking today -- such as Gregory Craig, or others -- what actions they're taking on Capitol Hill to somehow dissuade the committee from going forward or to limit the scope of the inquiry?

MR. LOCKHART: We're continuing to make the point, which is the main and basic point here, that we don't believe that there's anything that's transpired that approaches the standard of impeachable offense.

Now, the House committee is meeting today. They are, as we see, making opening statements. You'll see presentations from the Majority and the Minority. We are making the point that we think that that process should be fair; it should be nonpartisan; it should be focused on the Starr referral; and it should have some sense of timing that will allow this process to end and put it behind us, which is, I think, what the majority of the American public wants.

So that's why we continue to talk to them. And that's why that we see some advantages in what the Democrats have put forward, because we do see the important point that they, before moving to an impeachment inquiry, will spend some time on the issue of just what is an impeachable offense, what are the standards. And it is also focused and will be dealt with and will move forward in a way that is prompt and will allow us to put this behind us.

Q: Joe, the last five impeachments in the House dealt with the subject of perjury. How can you say that this doesn't rise to the level of impeachment?

MR. LOCKHART: Well, we have made this point over and over again. We don't believe and we think -- you know, if you look at -- you know, you take one publication for, just as an anecdotal example, that asked 11 constitutional scholars -- or 12 constitutional scholars if they thought this rose to the level of impeachment. And 10 said no. And one said he wasn't sure. So I think there is ample evidence out there that's it's not.

Q: But Congress said it was the last five times out.

Q: Joe, how much time does the President spend on a typical day or a typical week dealing with this process, at a time when he's got all these other issues also pending?

MR. LOCKHART: John, there's no such thing as a typical day or week here. But he has not lost focus on the issues that he was sent here to work on, and he continues to work on them. Peter.

Q: Joe, can I follow up on that?

MR. LOCKHART: Yes, sure.

Q: Because I think the citizens -- we've mentioned in the course of this briefing, we've mentioned a budget showdown, could lead to government shutdown. We've mentioned Kosovo and the possibility of pending military action. And we've mentioned an international economic crisis, which the people up here admitted that they're to some degree improvising for solutions. And citizens might want to know, why should the President be spending any time dealing with his personal fate when we've got all these other urgent matters?

MR. LOCKHART: Well, what I can say to --

Q: When you can't even quantify how much time he is, or assure us that it's not much.

MR. LOCKHART: All I can say, is to assure you that he is spending the time he needs to on the issues that you raised.

Q: As you noted, the hearings have gone on now for just four hours or so. But you say that the process has not been fair and that it's been partisan. Have you seen any examples of this?

MR. LOCKHART: No, to tell you the truth, I haven't had a chance to watch most of the openings statements. But that's more a broader statement about what's led up to today -- the idea that, you know, the information and grand jury testimony was just sort of dumped out in a very gratuitous and salacious way. So, again, we have hopes that the process can be fair and can be nonpartisan. And that's what they're discussing today.

Q: On the notion of defining what is an impeachable offense, there was a couple people today -- including Chairman Hyde -- who cited Rodino's remarks back in 1974 saying they should not define what is an impeachable offense up front. The White House seems to be saying that it should be the opposite. What is your understanding of what the Rodino principles are as you look back at '74 on the point?

MR. LOCKHART: Well, okay, I'm not familiar with all of what you call the Rodino principles. I think to be fair, some time should have been spent on developing what the standards were. And that is a point we've made. And I think it is an obvious precursor to looking at allegations and moving forward.

Q: Well, the Democratic timetable is for Thanksgiving. The Hyde timetable is at least to set a goal of New Year's. What's wrong with New Year's as a time frame for ending it?

MR. LOCKHART: Well, I think -- we don't see any reason. We've gone through, on this particular matter, eight months of investigation. Then we've seen tens of thousands of pages of testimony from everyone that has been involved in any way, shape or form with this. And we think that the Democrats offer a much tighter time frame where the committee, if they put their mind to it, could get their business done.

Q: That's an additional five weeks? You're talking about five weeks of --

MR. LOCKHART: Well, you know, you also -- I certainly have no reason to question Chairman Hyde's goal or time table. But even he suggested that New Year's resolutions were easily broken.

Q: Joe, the same President Ford to whom you have expressed warm gratitude, wants to find an impeachable offense as anything the House says. What about that?

MR. LOCKHART: Well, as a former member of the House, I think they should listen to an esteemed colleague who had important things to say on the subject.

Q: Also on Ford -- do you also view his remedy that the President should go to Capitol Hill and stand in the well and face --

MR. LOCKHART: No, I think -- I haven't discussed that particular part of it with the President. But I think what we've said before is it's not our job to prescribe remedies here. This is something for the Hill to describe particular issues. If the House has some ideas, we're always -- we talk to them on a regular basis. But we're not in a position right now where we can say this is how we want to prescribe the remedy.

Q: But certainly you know whether you would find something acceptable or not, if it's already been suggested?

MR. LOCKHART: Well, again, I think it's up to -- I think it's up to the House. It's more appropriate for them to develop whatever ideas they have, and then we will consider them.

Q: Joe, do you have any reaction to Larry Flynt's full-page ad in the Post yesterday, offering a million dollars for anybody coming forward for information about affairs with congressmen?


Q: Joe, is the President feeling deserted because Mr. Bowles and Emanuel leaving?

MR. LOCKHART: No, because he's had this massive infusion of new talent. (Laughter.) He was just telling me about how all the new people here are really kicking -- sturdy, not stocky.

Q: Who -- and who is going to replace Bowles?.

MR. LOCKHART: No final decision there. And I don't have any news for you on that. But, no, to take your question seriously, the President doesn't feel deserted. I mean, Erskine has served in an amazing capacity. He leaves behind a string of legislative accomplishments and a grateful President and a grateful staff, for people who have worked underneath him.

As many of you know, at the end of last year he expressed some interest in getting back to North Carolina. The President imposed on him the idea that he could stay around a little bit longer. He agreed to stay until the end of Congress. And I think that some time soon after Congress gets out, Erskine will retire.

But, as you all know, particularly those of you who have been here for a while, the staff people generally stay for a little while. And some -- they come and they go. And the President will find people who are talented and energetic and can help him promote the agenda he's laid out.

Q: He says he's been working on trying to get Congress to work on appropriations -- well, things are falling apart on you already. (Laughter.)

MR. LOCKHART: I guess Erskine didn't like that answer. Let me try again.

Q: Does it seem at all possible that you can avoid a government shutdown on Friday?

MR. LOCKHART: Oh, absolutely. Absolutely. A government shutdown serves no one's purpose. I can't say it serves a Democratic purpose, a Republican purpose or, more importantly, any American's purpose. We have five days between now and Friday. In the appropriations season it's hard to look hours out, much less days. There's time to get the work done. The Congress has had nine months now to complete this process. They have not finished their work, but it's not too late for them to get to work to finish it.

Q: Joe, this weekend Senator Lott said that some unnamed White House official had told him that the White House would shut down the government if it was in their political interests to do so. Is that the feeling in the White House? And what is your feeling?

MR. LOCKHART: Absolutely not. I think that while that may have made good television, it wasn't an accurate statement. I think those who have spoken to Senator Lott from the staff here have made an important point, which is the President feels very strongly about the priorities he laid out in the State of the Union and in the budget he sent up to Congress. And sending down appropriations bills that don't address and ignore those priorities is a way for the President to send them back with a veto.

But that doesn't mean that we can't spend the rest of this week working and find common ground and keep the -- keep the government open and send Congress home to do what they want to do which is campaign.

Q: Have you identified the statement that perhaps Lott described inaccurately or misinterpreted? Do you know what he's talking about, at least?

MR. LOCKHART: Well, I know that the Chief of Staff had a conversation with him now about two weeks ago where they discussed the idea of -- you know, what was going to be in the bills and what wasn't and what might rise to a Presidential veto. And in no way, shape or form did the Chief of Staff give Senator Lott the impression, nor did he say, that we felt we had a political interest in shutting the government down. I think quite the opposite, we believe that no one wins of the government shuts down.

But he did leave an unmistakable message, which was that there's time to get the business done. There's been a long time. You know, we are now five days past the deadline. We're in overtime in this process, and it's time to get to work. And if the Republican Party needs to put some of their differences aside and work them out within their caucus, that's fine. But we need to work together to get the process done.

Q: Joe?

MR. LOCKHART: Okay, I'm going to go with Deborah and I'll come back to you.

Q: Joe, I'm a little confused on your answer to Claire's question. Because you -- before you were welcoming Ford's statement, but you're refusing to say whether the President is willing to follow what Ford's recommending?

MR. LOCKHART: No, I welcomed -- he made two points in his op-ed -- one in which I think is appropriate for me to comment and one in which I think it's not appropriate for me.

Q: So what would happen? I mean, could we have a situation where the Congress wants a censure and votes that he should show up in the well of the House and he'll refuse to show up?

MR. LOCKHART: You're asking me something that's down the road and it's hypothetical.

Q: Ross again used the FM talk shows and made some very strong accusations and statements about the President. Has the President made any comment on what Ross Perot -- and I would like to hear your comments?

MR. LOCKHART: No, I think you used a line I gave to McCurry and actually use it myself. Good, I like this. No, I -- I think that comments like that reaffirm the public's view that Ross Perot is best out on talk shows and not in the Oval Office.

Q: Has the President made any comments whatsoever?

MR. LOCKHART: No, they are not serious statements and they don't rise to the level of seeking comment.

Q: Joe, the President spent a great deal of time effort and money the last eight months defending the executive, in terms of executive privilege, attorney-client privilege. Is the President concerned that any of these punishment schemes now being talked about in Congress violate the separation of powers doctrine and unfairly intrude on the executive?

MR. LOCKHART: I have not discussed that with him. Again, we don't really view it as appropriate to be out publicly talking about what the prescriptions or remedies. So I just don't know that he's got a view on that.

Q: Isn't it the President's obligation to defend the Executive Office of the President against a new intrusion by another branch?

MR. LOCKHART: Yes, it is his obligation. And what I'm saying is I don't know whether he views it as a new intrusion.

Q: Joe, are you and the President aware of Boston Globe columnist Jeff Jacoby's very serious critique of the race initiative chairman, John Hope Franklin?

MR. LOCKHART: Not aware of it. Get it to us, we'll look at it and I'll let you know.

Q: He reports that Franklin has repeatedly referred to a black high school student that he claims was completely destroyed by a casual comment by an insensitive white teacher. But he refuses to identify this -- even though there's a professor of African history, he refuses to identify this. Does the President think he ought to be forthright about this and identify who this black student was or not?

MR. LOCKHART: Is he protecting his source or not?

Q: Well, no, he brought it up. He brought it up, he cited it.

MR. LOCKHART: I don't know, I haven't seen the article.

Q: Could this be another Janet Cooke story, do you think?

MR. LOCKHART: I'll take a look at it.

Q: Joe, Sy Hersh's piece, the White House ignored Attorney General Reno's concerns that the evidence indicating Osama bin Laden's connection to the places we lob cruise missiles at is not quite strong enough to go there. Did he keep the Joint Chiefs -- not -- excluding the chairman -- and the FBI out of the loop until very late in the game?

MR. LEAVY: FBI is a military operation. Joint Chiefs of Staff, the targeting list came over from them and the CIA.

MR. LOCKHART: All right. I think that we fully consulted with the Joint Chiefs, and so did not keep them out of the loop.

MR. LEAVY: And the FBI is a military operation, the President's national security advisors all agreed --


Q: Well, let me press you on that, or get David up there, one. Besides reporting, one, that the FBI was told too late to protect FBI assets in the region, is that true? Two, is he saying that the chair of the Joint Chiefs was involved in the planning, but not the remainder of -- not the other members of the Joint Chiefs?

MR. LOCKHART: The President properly consulted. If you want to ask the FBI to the contrary -- but the President properly consulted and the evidence that they acted on, we believe strongly -- as strongly today as we did at the time, if not stronger.

Q: And did the Attorney General, in fact, have concerns that the evidence was weaker than she would have liked?

MR. LOCKHART: I'm just not aware of that.

Q: Given that the White House doesn't want a government shutdown, why wouldn't the President sign a second CR in order to avoid one?

MR. LOCKHART: I think what we need to do -- we're in the first day of the last legislative week. And what you don't want to do on the first day in the last legislative week is tell people how they can get another week in the process. We've got a lot of hard work to do. We believe that Congress concentrating on the subject can get the work done. And we're hopeful that we will make significant progress as the week goes by.

Q: That means the President wouldn't veto a second CR if they don't complete all the --

MR. LOCKHART: Well, let me fall back on the age-old policy of there's nothing there to sign or veto, and we'll comment when there is.

Q: Joe, can you announce once and for all the President's visit to Japan in November? And would such a visit be designed to assuage feelings that might have been hurt because he didn't stop there after China?

MR. LOCKHART: Let me read you what's on my page -- and it better be right. (Laughter.) Our discussions with both the governments of Korea and Japan have continued regarding the President's trip to Japan and Korea next month. Following the APEC meeting, the President will visit Japan on roughly November 19th through 20th, and Korea November 21st and 22nd. The pre-advance team is there now working through the issues that these trips raise, and we should have some more information for you soon.

Q: Joe, did the President have any words of advice or encouragement for his new Press Secretary on the first day?

MR. LOCKHART: He admired my new tie, so I think that was good. (Laughter) No, he had no specific advice.

Q: Can you tell us about the tie, who gave it to you? (Laughter.)

Q: Is that a signal to someone?

MR. LOCKHART: Laura knows she's always close to my heart.

Q: Is that all he did? Did he say, go to it?

MR. LOCKHART: No. I went in and talked to him, we did just business.

Q: Did he admonish you to tell the truth?

MR. LOCKHART: Absolutely. No, that goes without saying.

Q: Joe, about how many Democrats do you expect will join with Republicans later this week when the full House votes on whether to hold impeachment hearings?

MR. LOCKHART: There are lots of people on TV 24 hours a day making those predictions. I'm not going to get into that business.

Q: Do you think it would be closer to a half-dozen than 100?

MR. LOCKHART: I have no idea, and I'm just not get into a predictive business about where Democrats or Republicans are going to vote.

Q: Is the White House personally represented in the room today up on the Hill? And if so, who?

MR. LOCKHART: I think there is someone from Counsel's Office there. I know that they were kind enough to save a seat for us. I actually don't know who it is. But if you're interested, I can check for you.

Q: Is Greg Craig up there or John Podesta?

MR. LOCKHART: No, I mean, I saw John just before I came down, so I know he isn't. I don't think Greg is. But there is someone from the team that's sort of monitoring.

Q: Sort of eyes and ears, but that's all?


Q: Why at so low a level? Why not someone more senior?

MR. LOCKHART: We can watch it on TV.

Q: Joe, will Greg Craig or somebody have a response after the Majority attorney presents his case or his filings?

MR. LOCKHART: We'll wait and see the case.

Q: Joe, can you explain the filing with the Supreme Court today on attorney-client privilege and how the administration could press that at the same time as calling for a hard end date to the impeachment investigation?

MR. LOCKHART: Because we believe that the President has a right to confidential communications with his attorney. And that ultimately the court will decide whether our argument has merits or if others have merits.

Q: But how can you call for a three day end to the investigation if the White House would continue to hold --

MR. LOCKHART: I think it's disingenuous of people who argue that perhaps if they had more information they could make a reasoned decision on the subject. There are tens of thousands of pages. There's probably not too many people up on the Hill have actually been able to read all of that. So I don't think it's a serious argument that somehow this particular case may be holding back any prompt consideration of the matter. I would be open to someone who disagreed with that, but I find it hard to believe that argument.

Q: Thank you.

MR. LOCKHART: Thank you.


William J. Clinton, Press Briefing by Joe Lockhart Online by Gerhard Peters and John T. Woolley, The American Presidency Project

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