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Press Briefing by Joe Lockhart

April 22, 2000

The James S. Brady Press Briefing Room

11:18 A.M. EDT

MR. LOCKHART: Good morning, still I think. I just wanted to come in because I think I talked to some of you individually about giving you some of the details of the last 12 hours, but for those of you who I haven't had a chance to return your calls, let me just go through a bit of the chronology here. And then I'll be glad to take some of your questions.

Just before the President recorded his radio address yesterday over in the residence, he had the opportunity to talk to the Attorney General. The Attorney General briefed the President on the status of the situation on the ground and the discussions that took place yesterday between the parties, that included some Miami citizens who came forward with some ideas for how to voluntarily transfer custody of Elian Gonzalez to his father.

The President then did his radio address, proceeded to work on some other things. At 8:30 p.m., in the Oval Office, he had the opportunity to talk to the Attorney General again, who -- the Attorney General gave the President a status report, where they were as far as those discussions. After that telephone call, the President returned to the residence -- as I think I told a lot of you last evening, a lot of his family is here for the Easter weekend -- and spent the evening with his family.

The Chief of Staff, John Podesta, stayed in hourly contact with the Justice Department, getting updates. He called the President at 2:15 a.m. to give him a status report of what the Justice Department was reporting here to the White House. The gist of that conversation was that the discussions with the parties were continuing to try to work out a voluntary transfer of custody. I think at that point there was some sentiment that that could be done. I think the Attorney General made the point to Mr. Podesta that they were going to continue with that process while they thought there was some hope of it working out, but if they reached a conclusion that there was no hope of that working out, or made a judgment that there was no hope, that they were ready to go in and transfer the custody of the boy to the father in the way you saw this morning.

John talked to the President. The President agreed with the approach that they would continue the discussions, even if that meant going out another day or two if the judgment was made that that was useful, but when a judgment was made that they were no longer moving toward a voluntary transfer of custody of the boy to the father, that they should go and remove and transfer the custody themselves.

And that was the last conversation until just before 5:00 a.m., when, before talking to the President, Mr. Podesta again talked to the Justice Department, he told the President that it was their judgment that negotiations were not going to result in a transfer of custody of the young boy to the father and that they were beginning to move ahead with taking custody and transferring the boy, as you've seen over the day.

The Chief of Staff called the President at about 5:30 a.m. to let him know the transfer had taken place, that the boy had been safely removed from the house and was on his way to Washington to be reunited with his father. The President took a call from the Attorney General just before 6:00 a.m. this morning. The President thanked the Attorney General for her leadership, told her that he was pleased that they were able to reunite the young boy with his father in the way that this morning unfolded.

I think that covers everything up until when the President spoke to you before. I expect that sometime in the next couple hours the family will get together and head up to Camp David for the rest of the Easter weekend.

Q: Was the President told the exact plans, I mean in terms of the operational that had been rehearsed and that guns would be used?

MR. LOCKHART: I think the President, over the last several days, has had the opportunity to have fairly extensive conversations with the Attorney General, so he was aware of the plans for removing the boy and transferring his custody.

Q: Joe, was the President disturbed by the very heavy show of force and by the still photographs from inside the house that showed a helmeted SWAT team member with an automatic weapon near the boy?

MR. LOCKHART: Well, I think that the Attorney General I think did a fine job of trying to put pictures that you all have been talking about in perspective, and I can't add anything to that. I would take some issue with your characterization of a heavy use of force. I think there were, as the Attorney General said before, I think there were eight people who went in there. They drove up in white mini vans. Every effort was made to do this in a careful and limited way, and this was a careful and limited operation.

The Attorney General also indicated that they had information that there might be weapons either outside or inside. These are U.S. marshals, public servants who are asked to do work that has the potential for being dangerous. We believe that this was a careful and limited operation that succeeded.

Q: Are you concerned, Joe, that the picture, though, gives a different impression to the public, and is there any move to counter --

MR. LOCKHART: Well, it's certainly my hope that those who are in the business of describing such things to the public will use great care and great perspective.

Q: Joe, the President certainly was hoping that it wouldn't have to come to this. I wonder what his personal reaction was when Mr. Podesta told him --

MR. LOCKHART: I'm glad you said that because that is something that I left out. I think we have to think of this as more than in the context of the last six hours. This has been going on for months. For three months, the Attorney General has done everything she could possibly think to do to try to find a way to effect the voluntary transfer of custody of the boy to his father. She has worked tirelessly over the last three months, and I think she has shown great patience.

I think as she said this morning, the consistent part of these discussions is how often the goalposts have moved. And I think that's something that you all will recognize if you go back and look at your previous stories. But she continued to work patiently until the very last hour to try to resolve this in a way where there was a voluntary.

I think, given her ability to make judgments here, having been involved in this for the three months, given her indisputable record here of showing patience and compassion for the people involved here on all sides, it is sound judgment that she made that we needed to move forward in the way we did.

Q: But that being said, the President's personal reaction -- he must have been disappointed to hear --

MR. LOCKHART: I think the President, like the Attorney General and I would venture to say all Americans, believed that the best way to do this was for the Miami relatives to voluntarily transfer custody, follow the law, abide by what the court said. I think the President believes that the Attorney General offered every opportunity for that to happen. That did not happen. We were left with no other alternative. But the bottom line in the situation remains that the court, the INS, our law dictates that the boy should be with his father and the boy is with his father.

Q: Is the U.S. government taking care of him now?

MR. LOCKHART: You know, that is a question I do not know the arrangements, to tell you the truth. I know that they are at a U.S. government facility where they were taken. But I would put that question to the INS, because I honestly don't know the answer to it.

Q: Is the President going to speak directly, any plans to speak directly with either the family, Elian, his father?

MR. LOCKHART: No, I think the President rightly views this as a legal matter that should go through the proper channels. The President believes that any of the parties that have anything that they believe is important to communicate to the government should do so through the auspices of the Justice Department and the INS.

The Justice Department and the INS have listened, as I've said, very patiently over the last three months to all sides in this case and have taken very much into account the position of the Miami relatives, the father, others, interested parties who have expressed a view in this case. I think they will continue to listen, but that is the appropriate place. We don't believe that it's appropriate for the President to communicate directly.

Q: Did he see the TV today? Did he see the young woman who was describing all of the --

MR. LOCKHART: I don't think -- he did not describe that scene -- he had seen very little of it this morning, so I don't know that he saw any of that.

Q: Do you know anything else about the actual reunion of the father and the son?

MR. LOCKHART: I think that the INS has -- is the best place to that information, or through the attorneys for the father. I don't have independent information on that.

Q: Joe, do you know if some of the parents or close relations to Elian will be allowed to come into the U.S. to ease up the transition?

MR. LOCKHART: Some of the -- from where?

Q: Some of his old friends. There were a couple of people who I think may have had a visa to come.

MR. LOCKHART: Well, I think the State Department issued a number of visas, some that were used, some that were not taken up by people associated with Elian's father. There are a number of others that the last time I checked remain pending. So I would check at the State Department.

Q: Has there been any communication between the U.S. government and the Cuban government through the State Department or whatnot?

MR. LOCKHART: Not that I'm aware of.

Q: Regarding negotiations last night, in retrospect, do you think they were in good faith, or do you think that they were playing games, to use a phrase you used yesterday?

MR. LOCKHART: As far as the Miami relatives? Listen, I can't -- I'm not in the position to speculate on what their bottom line was and what their negotiating position was. What I can tell you is, for three months, the Attorney General has in good faith tried to find a voluntary way to transfer custody of this young boy to his father, and for three months was unable to do that. And we were never able to get to the bottom line question and the bottom line issue of would they transfer custody. We were never able to get to a "yes."

Q: Just to follow up -- and the reason I ask is, you know, there are now statements from the Miami relatives that there was a phone call, open line, to the Justice Department at the time the raid began.

MR. LOCKHART: Well, I would leave you to talk to the Justice Department about the actual details, as they were talking. But my understanding is it was made very clear -- the circumstance was made very clear to those that they were having discussions with. And I will remind you further that this is not a process that began yesterday afternoon, this is a process that began three months ago.

And the Justice Department worked with incredible patience in dealing with all sides, in letting them have their say, whether it be in discussions, whether it be in the court proceedings. And after three months of these discussions, I think the Attorney General was in the best position to make a determination whether these discussions had the potential to bear fruit or whether they were fruitless and we needed to move forward. And I think that judgment was sound.

Q: Joe, there are calls, particularly out of Miami, for the President to offer assurances that Elian won't be returned to Cuba. Will he ever come forth with something that direct?

MR. LOCKHART: I think the court has offered the assurance that the family, the Miami relatives were looking for in the decision. Even before the court, though, the attorney for the boy's father had said that, I think the father had said it directly. But the court is quite clear on the subject of the boy remaining in this country.

Q: Is there something that the administration wants to say to some of those Cuban Americans that are vilifying the President and the Attorney General for this action, and see this as a betrayal of somehow what the United States government should stand for?

MR. LOCKHART: Well, I understand, and I think the President understands, how difficult this is for all of the parties involved. I think we understand the emotional nature of some of the responses. But the President believes that when you're having a discussion about what the United States stands for and what the Constitution is, he believes that the rule of law here was upheld and an important principle was upheld -- that when a court and the INS come to the determination that a young boy should be with his father, and that young boy should be with his father.

Q: Did the President -- has the father, Miguel -- has Gonzalez gotten in touch with the White House at all, the father?

MR. LOCKHART: No. No.

Q: Joe, the government of Cuba had launched a national campaign around that. What do you expect them to do now? What do you want them to do? Turn it down?

MR. LOCKHART: I would send the same message that the President sends to all involved, that this isn't about politics, that politics should be kept out of this. This is about who speaks for a young boy and whether a young boy should be with his father. I think what's happened today is a young boy has been reunited with his father. And I think the time, as the President said, should be to give them space so that they can be a family again. And the politics should be tuned out here, because it provides no benefit or comfort to the people who are most directly involved here.

Q: Has there been any communication between White House officials and mayors or city officials in Miami to deal with any violence that may --

MR. LOCKHART: I don't know any communications with the White House. I know the Justice Department has had an ongoing dialogue with city and county officials and I assume that continues.

Q: Do you know if they were cooperative at all?

MR. LOCKHART: I have not been told that they were not cooperative, but that's a question to put to the Justice Department. No one has given me any information about non-cooperation.

Q: And how often will the President, throughout the rest of this holiday weekend, be kept informed of the tensions in Miami?

MR. LOCKHART: Oh, I think the President looks forward to spending some time with his family. We'll communicate information to him as appropriate.

Q: And his failure to not go up to Camp David last night had nothing to do with this topic?

MR. LOCKHART: No. I think as I described to most people here, this was something that probably a lot of Americans can understand -- a delay due to weather, and his brother didn't get here until about 8:30 p.m. And they had already planned a family dinner and they were going to watch a movie together. They decided to do that here. And then when the final piece of news came, which was that the helicopter couldn't take off because of the weather, I think everything was aligned to let's stay overnight and go to the Camp in the morning.

Q: What was the movie?

MR. LOCKHART: I wish I knew.

Q: They are going up today?

MR. LOCKHART: Yes, they will go up today.

Q: Fly away. Where are you going to be the rest of the day?

Q: Actually, Joe, since we have you here, on another subject -- campaign finance? Can you tell us anything about the President being interviewed yesterday, and the Vice President on the campaign --

MR. LOCKHART: I can't really elaborate beyond the statement that I put under my name yesterday, that the President was interviewed, and the Vice President, earlier in the week.

Q: Why was he interviewed?

MR. LOCKHART: The statement that I put out yesterday gave as much information as I'm prepared to go. If you want to ask the Justice Department, they might be more forthcoming.

Q: Thank you.

END 11:35 A.M. EDT

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/271634

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