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Press Briefing by Michael McCurry

August 11, 1995

The Briefing Room

1:26 P.M. EDT

MR. MCCURRY: Let me continue with a couple of items of interest. First, I just wanted to mention again, I told some of you earlier that the President's advisory committee on Gulf War veterans illnesses will be holding its first meeting on Monday and Tuesday next week, August 14, August 15. The First Lady will kick off the initial meeting at 9:30 a.m. Monday morning. It is going to be held at Capitol Hilton Hotel. She will be followed by Secretary Brown from the Veterans Administration, Secretary Shalala from Health and Human Services, and Deputy Secretary John White from the Department of Defense.

This advisory committee is just one part of the President's overall effort to get to the bottom of what happened in the Gulf, what illnesses are being experienced by Gulf War veterans, and to provide effective medical care to those who are ill. That's the subject that will be reviewed in the two days of meetings that they have.

Another item I think overlooked this week with all the other news being made, but I would draw it to your attention since here we've discussed often this ongoing question of the OMB's economic estimates and assumptions versus those of the Congressional Budget Office. I'd note that yesterday the blue chip forecasters, the 50 most prominent forecasters from around the country that the corporate community relies upon who develop the blue chip forecast have found that by a slightly narrow margin they found OMB's estimates to have a better chance of being a successful projection of the performance of the economy over the next decade than those that have been put forward by the CBO. It was slightly -- a narrow margin of difference in the judgments made by OMB's forecast versus CBO's forecast, but on balance those economies surveyed did favor the administration's forecast.

As Robert J. Egert, who is in Arizona, an economist and one of the blue chip forecasters, said, the 2.5 percent growth estimate which is in the OMB assumptions has a better chance of being more accurate. That was the consensus view of those economists who were consulted.

Dr. Rivlin sent a friendly letter to Chairman Kasich yesterday to just point out the arrival of this very important news and suggested that with these findings now in hand we should all be able to agree at this point to put aside what has really been a non-issue, and that is the validity of one set of assumptions or projections versus another. She said in a letter to the Chairman that we can move on to the real issues in the budget debate between the President and the congressional majority -- how long we should take to balance the budget, which Americans should get tax relief, whether Medicare beneficiaries should be forced to pay higher costs and whether we should expand our investments in education and training or reverse course. Those are the real issues that will lie ahead in the budget debates between the Executive Branch and the Legislative Branch. And as the blue chip forecasters indicate, they should not be phony debates about economic assumptions.

Q: I'm sure they'll agree.

MR. MCCURRY: I hope they will.

Q: Do you think the Congress should now accept the OMB forecast?

MR. MCCURRY: I think that as they have done in the past, they should agree which set of assumptions they're going to use and get on with the business of writing the budget. In past years, as we've said from time to time here, sometimes the Congress relies upon OMB numbers, sometimes they develop their own estimates. Frankly, sometimes the Congress does not even use the CBO numbers.

My understanding, if I'm not mistaken about this, is even in developing the current seven-year proposal of the Republican majority in Congress, they have in some instances not even used CBO's numbers. So economic assumptions and technical projections are fungible. They are not the core of the debate. The core of the debate are what policy directions, what priorities are going to lie behind that budget. And the sooner we get to those issues, the President feels, the better off the country will be because we can get on with the nation's business conducted in an orderly fashion and avoid what is now the impending crisis that will arrive as we reach the end of the fiscal year.

Q: Why does the administration think that it can win the veto battle over Bosnia?

MR. MCCURRY: Well, first let me tell you that the President has just sent to the Congress his veto of the measure which would unilaterally lift the arms embargo against Bosnia Hercegovina in a message that accompanies the veto. The President says that he knows members of Congress share his goals of reducing the violence in Bosnia and working to end the war, but the vote to unilaterally lift the arms embargo is the wrong step at the wrong time.

The American people should understand the consequences of such an action for the people of Bosnia and for the people of the United States. The measure at this point to lift unilaterally the arms embargo would run the risk of further escalating the conflict in Bosnia, and would certainly Americanize U.S. participation in this conflict with the likely involvement of U.S. ground forces as a result.

Q: Are you going to give us that statement?

MR. MCCURRY: Yes, we've got a statement, a longer statement that is available, if it's not out already.

Q: The veto message or the same stuff you just said?

MR. MCCURRY: Same stuff I just said, said for your benefit.

Q: Mike, you made those same arguments ad nauseam over the past several months and still you're two or three votes short of a veto beating back an override.

MR. MCCURRY: You're doing vote counts, we're doing vote counts. Our assumption is that over the course of the summer recess by Congress it will become much clearer on the ground, A, whether the effort to strengthen UNPROFOR and use the resources of NATO air power to enforce the ultimatum that has been delivered to those committing aggression, that will be proven to be effective or not effective during the course of these coming weeks. And, second, the long-term viability of the U.N. mission -- it will become much clearer whether the mission itself can conduct its work over the course of the coming months and do so effectively. And also simultaneously as you know we are working with our Contact Group partners and our allies to reenergize the diplomatic search for a settlement to this conflict, and that, too, is underway now and we will know better as Congress returns later in the fall what the status of those diplomatic efforts are.

All of those things, we would argue, are going to work in the direction of members of Congress feeling they ought to wait, think twice about the perilous course they've embarked upon.

Q: So you're really playing for time here, right?

Q: Does the first part of that formulation presuppose a Serb attack on a U.N.-protected area and a NATO response?

MR. MCCURRY: Well, there's not been any indication that the Serbs are currently planning aggression against the safe areas. That's been one of the positive effects of the firmer position taken by the United Nations and NATO together, that the threat that did exist to the safe area of Gorazde has subsided somewhat, although, clearly, those safe areas still need humanitarian relief, they still need free movements of humanitarian relief convoys. But for the moment, there's no major Bosnian Serb offensive directed against those safe areas that have now been protected by both the United Nations and by the decisions of the North Atlantic Council.

Q: So you're really gambling for time, hoping that things improve on the ground.

MR. MCCURRY: Well, so far things have improved on the ground. And over time we hope the combination of a firmer position by the West and more intense diplomacy will produce a result that the President seeks. And that is an end to the fighting, humanitarian relief to those refugees who are now scattered all over Bosnia, and a more determined effort to bring about a political settlement. Those have been illusive goals in recent months and they are by no means easily achieved goals. But there's intense work on all of those objectives now taking place.

Q: Did you seek assurances from Senator Dole that he would not bring this up, say, late tonight?

MR. MCCURRY: We have had discussions with the leadership about what the Senate calendar looks like, and we have good understandings with the leadership that any member of the Senate could have asked to bring the measure forward.

Q: But is that an indication that you aren't certain you have the votes?

MR. MCCURRY: We would acknowledge that to make the case effectively and to sustain the President's veto at this point, it would require hours, if not days, of hard work by the President and by the White House. Our sense and our read of the disposition of the Senate is they were not interested in remaining in session into next week so that we could do that type of aggressive work. We would have been willing to do so, but our understanding of the disposition of the Senate leadership is that they wanted to take their recess.

Q: Was today the last day you had to do it?

MR. MCCURRY: No, I believe technically we would have had by calendar days until Monday if the Senate had remained in session until Monday.

Q: What does Croatia -- the recent attacks by Croatian troops, how does that play into your scenario that things are getting better and may change the vote outcome?

MR. MCCURRY: Look, better is a relative term. I make that clear to begin with. There is great humanitarian suffering taking place by those who have been ethnically cleansed from the eastern enclaves, by those refugees who are now forced by the fighting in the Krajina to flee. So I hesitate to use the term "better" in describing anything having to do with Bosnia.

On the other hand, the situation -- the conflict itself, the fighting, has subsided somewhat. The Croatian offensive into the Krajina has now changed the configuration of where civilian populations are located. That might or might not have some impact on the diplomatic discussions. The area of Krajina and the area around the Bihac pocket was a significant factor in the deliberations between the parties on the merits of the Contact Group proposal, so that might, conceivably, have some effect now in their disposition on the underlying geographic elements of the dispute itself.

Q: Does the atrocities against Krajina Serbs affect the moral equation in this matter?

MR. MCCURRY: No, they don't affect the moral equation because they are equally repugnant. No matter who conducts the type of dislocation of civilian populations, the burning of villages, the effort to dispel civilian populations from their homes -- in this case, in the Krajina as a result of the offensive that took place in that region -- it's equally repugnant.

It's clear, that said, that the victims of genocide and ethnic cleansing have, during the long course of this conflict, have predominantly been Muslims. But the recent fighting in the Krajina has produced large flows of refugees out of the Krajina, and those civilians are no less displaced, no less in humanitarian stress than those who suffered at the other side of Bosnia from Serb aggression.

Q: As Mr. Lake and Mr. Tarnoff continue to travel through capitals of Europe how often is the President in contact with them, or how are they in contact with the President?

MR. MCCURRY: Well, they have been reporting in to their respective agencies, as you know, between Under Secretary Tarnoff, Deputy Assistant Secretary Kruzel, General Clark, those who are part of the delegation, with Mr. Lake, both the White House, the State Department, the Defense Department and the Joint Chiefs are getting good briefs on the discussions that are underway. The President has been receiving regular reports from the Deputy National Security Advisor Sandy Berger on the course of these discussions.

We're satisfied that the talks have been, as reported, positive. The delegation has now met both in Bonn and Paris. They will in coming days also go to Russia. They will also be in Madrid and in Rome.

Q: When is Tony due back, and is he likely to brief the President?

MR. MCCURRY: Oh, he certainly will brief the President upon his return. I would expect the delegation at the conclusion of the week and perhaps early next week to assess where they are. It's very likely there would be some additional diplomatic follow-up at some point. I think we will be very interested in sharing with the parties some of the results of the deliberations. That could happen some time next week.

Q: Are we likely to have a meeting in Wyoming? That's what I'm getting at.

MR. MCCURRY: I don't know of the National Security Advisor's plans to brief the President, but that could obviously be done by telephone.

Q: The President said yesterday that he had no map in mind. Where does that leave the Contact Group map?

MR. MCCURRY: Well, the Contact Group proposal remains the basis for a settlement and the basis for future discussions between the parties.

Q: Yeltsin is reported to be ready to lift the economic embargo on Serbia. Do you see this move, A, as connected to what Congress has done trying to lift the arms embargo on Bosnia, sort of a counter? And regardless of what his motivation may be or how he came to it, are we trying diplomatically to dissuade him from taking this step?

MR. MCCURRY: Yes, and we will have further discussions with the Russian Federation on that point as Mr. Lake's delegation goes to Russia.

Q: Can we go to Iraq? Anything new on the defectors? Any information? Are they giving us a lot of good information?

MR. MCCURRY: I will say that the President had a second and very good phone call with the King of Jordan this morning. The King reported that he was very thankful for the remarks made by the President yesterday. The President and the King also discussed the status of the defectors, had a good discussion on that point. I'm not at liberty to share any of the details of that conversation, but it is clear that the motivation for the defections is the deplorable conditions that exist inside Iraq and the lack of credibility that Saddam Hussein has now as a leader of Iraq. And the motivation in that sense seemed to be a genuine one about concern for the people of Iraq.

Q: Who called whom? Did the President call him?

MR. MCCURRY: I don't know. I believe -- did we place the call? I think we placed the call this morning. But they had a good exchange of views, and they'd agreed in their phone call yesterday to remain in touch.

Q: Without going into specifics or details of what you might be hearing from them, are you receiving information from discussions with these two gentlemen from the Jordanians? The briefer yesterday was not certain how much they wanted to discuss.

MR. MCCURRY: The briefer was cautious yesterday in saying what type of information we've got. We have been in close contact with the government of Jordan about the discussions that have been underway.

Q: Have U.S. officials had any direct contact with the individuals?

MR. MCCURRY: I just don't have anything for you on that.

Q: I'm sorry, you aren't, perhaps deliberately, but you aren't saying whether or not we're getting any information at this point.

MR. MCCURRY: I'm saying -- I just told you, the President and the King talked and they shared some information on the two defectors. So, of course, we are getting some information.

Q: The tobacco industry seems to be personalizing this issue that the President has outlined. They're staging quite serious attacks against Kessler. I wonder if you're concerned that Kessler has now become kind of the tobacco industry's poster boy in this debate and is diverting attention from substance.

MR. MCCURRY: He stood here before you yesterday, and I think it's more than adequate to say that he's someone who in the last 14 months has, with great care and great precision, addressed the scientific and legal issues that were imbedded in the decision announced by the President yesterday. Personal attacks of that nature are quite unfortunate because those are not the issues in dispute here. They would indicate to the White House that those who are now fighting the President, those who are seeking to reverse the President in the courts feel they don't have a very substantive case to make when they resort to that type of personal attack.

Q: Do you think it would ever reach the point where you'd have to stand by Kessler in the face of demands for his resignation?

MR. MCCURRY: I don't think it's necessary because I don't think those types of charges are going to get very far. They're utterly without merit, and I think that's clear to the American people.

Q: The President's legal defense trust fund released the numbers for the first six months of this year, and it showed that they raised about $250,000, compared to about $650,000 during the last six months of last year, at a time when the total legal bills are around $2.1 million. How concerned is the President that there has been this dramatic decline in funds raised by the defense?

MR. MCCURRY: He's concerned as anyone would be facing that type of bill and obviously not having the wherewithal to pay that bill. The President is not a wealthy individual, so naturally he's concerned. But at the same time, he's got very important work to do as President and I don't think he'll allow his concern to preoccupy him unnecessarily as he continues to do what he's supposed to do, which is to serve the American people.

Q: Just following up on that, have the President and the First Lady tried to make any provision, or do they have any concern about the very large legal bills being run up now by their aides as a result of their testimony in this continuing --

MR. MCCURRY: They, naturally, are sympathetic and they understand that many of their aides who have retained legal counsel face exactly the same situation that they do, in a sense. Most of the folks who have been called to testify before various committees or various proceedings are themselves not wealthy and are also going to face very large legal bills. And the President, as you can tell from the release today, is in a position to be understanding and sympathetic of the concerns that his aides might have as well.

Q: But they don't have any practical notions of how they might either extend some of the funds from this fund to those aides or --

MR. MCCURRY: I haven't heard any discussion of that nature.

Q: On the fund that the President requires the tobacco companies to contribute $150 million a year, where is the legal authority for that? That seems almost like a direct tax that he's ordering.

MR. MCCURRY: I can't -- in reading the rule yesterday, I know there was a discussion of the legal premise under the Food, Drug and Cosmetic Act that would allow the FDA to take that provision. But I don't have it here, don't recall it off-hand. You might want to direct that over to the FDA, but they do have a discussion, if I'm not mistaken, within the proposed rule about the legal structure of that fund itself.

Q: On the executive order of a few days ago, did you find out why the President didn't go for stronger --

MR. MCCURRY: You know, I did get an answer to that and I forgot to bring it with me. I'm sorry -- it's up on my desk. You might want to get that. Maybe we could come back to that if I get it, or you can follow up on it. But I did get an answer worked up on that; I just forgot to bring it down.

Q: Going back to Iraq, does the President intend to hold a conversation with leaders of Saudi Arabia and Israel on the situation in Iraq and what he hears from King Hussein?

MR. MCCURRY: Well, there will be, as a result of some of the things the President said yesterday, there will be follow-up diplomatic contact between embassies. I'm not aware if the President has plans to make those calls at his level, but there certainly will be follow-up diplomatic contact in the region.

Q: On that, Mike, the briefer told us yesterday there was some military activity undefined, but it was premature to say if it was connected to the defections. Twenty-four hours later, do you have any more light to shed on it?

MR. MCCURRY: I cannot shed light on it here. I would direct you to the Pentagon for any discussion that they might want to make about any particular movement of U.S. military resources.

Q: Any indication that any of the defectors might seek U.S. asylum?

MR. MCCURRY: Not that I'm aware of at this point, but there are still discussions underway in Jordan.

Q: I'm sorry, I couldn't --

Q: On that specific topic?

MR. MCCURRY: Not on that specific point. There are still just discussions with the two individuals that are underway.

Q: I don't want to redefine David's question, but you said -- you referred to the movement of U.S. military resources. I think what we're asking about is movement of Iraqi military.

MR. MCCURRY: My understanding is that we've seen no evidence of military moves directly related to the defections. Iraqi troops have not traditionally been deployed for action against Jordan. Most of their deployments have been north of Baghdad and most likely, as indicated at the Pentagon yesterday in response to some of the disturbances in north Iraq related to the Kurdish population.

There have been some signs that there could be the beginning of some type of exercise or operation in the north, but in any event, as the President suggested yesterday, given Saddam Hussein's record and his pattern of behavior, it's very smart for our forces to be prudent in the coming days.

Q: Will the Pentagon be announcing some troop --

MR. MCCURRY: I would ask -- go over and ask them.

Q: Mike, a couple of questions on the First Lady. Is there anything new on the China visit?

MR. MCCURRY: I haven't heard anything new on that today.

Q: The First Lady's Office yesterday I think told D'Amato that they were going to release some phone logs that he wants. Do you know when that might happen?

MR. MCCURRY: I do not.

Q: Do you have anything on the evidence that was presented yesterday showing that Mrs. Clinton was deeper involved in defending Madison in the Whitewater stuff?

MR. MCCURRY: I do not.

Q: What are the plans for briefing if anything needs addressing on Bosnia or Iraq in the next two weeks?

MR. MCCURRY: Well, we will watch developments on the ground. If there's need for briefings, we will most likely conduct them at the Pentagon and at the State Department. The White House Press Office will be operational out in Wyoming and we'll pass information on to them if there's a need to do that. My plan is not to have any briefings conducted here during the period in which the President is out there.

Q: Can you make that solid?

MR. MCCURRY: Can I make a 100 percent solemn pledge, a solemn pledge not to do any briefings?

Q: Because some of us who travel sometimes find ourselves in the dark because briefings are held back here that we miss if we're on the road, strangely enough.

MR. MCCURRY: Well, I can't -- it's certainly appropriate for the Pentagon and the State Department to continue whatever schedule of briefings that they would normally have in coming weeks, and I can't guarantee that there won't be items on those two subjects -- on those several subjects done there. But we don't have any plans to do anything here.

Q: Are you coming out there at all?

MR. MCCURRY: I don't see any reason to do so now.

Q: But if there was some grave matter that arose you would be anyplace where you were needed?

MR. MCCURRY: If a grave matter arose that was sufficiently important, the President would most like be here and not there.

Q: You mentioned the President was meeting with his economic team today.


Q: Well, Secretary Rubin yesterday said that in order to avoid a government shutdown he thought it would be a good idea for Congress to try to pass an extension of continuing funding and the debt limit ceiling prior to October 1. Do you have any reason to believe that Congress is going to go for short-term or long-term extensions of either of these?

MR. MCCURRY: We don't have any reason to believe that Congress has made a final disposition on that.

Q: Besides MTV, does the President have other appearances on behalf of the tobacco announcement, or the Vice President and First Lady in the coming days?

MR. MCCURRY: As I mentioned earlier, I suspect he will devote his Saturday radio address tomorrow to that subject. I wouldn't rule out that in coming days he will continue to address this subject, and there are a variety of administration officials now who are making appearances and-or doing interviews on much the same subject.

Q: Are you going to put out the entire MTV transcript? They said they have released any objection to that.

MR. MCCURRY: I had a brief discussion with one of the officials from MTV at the end and if I am not mistaken, we agreed that as soon as they make some of the excerpts available to broadcast organizations. They will also make a full transcript available, and I think that was supposedly going to be ready in a short while.

Q: They're deciding the video excerpts, is that it?

MR. MCCURRY: My understanding is they are to protect their proprietary interest in their interview.

Q: What about the full transcript?

Q: Is the White House not going to put out the transcript?

MR. MCCURRY: We want to honor their -- as we do with most news organizations that have exclusive interviews, we want to abide by their wishes. But I think that their preference was to have a text-only transcript, full transcript, available I believe when they make the broadcast excerpts available.

Q: That they would release the transcript, or you would release it?

MR. MCCURRY: If that's okay by them we will do it here.

Q: That would be easier for everybody.

Q: And you're figuring that those, the broadcast excerpts are going to be released here or somewhere else?

MR. MCCURRY: I think they were going to do it here to the pool. But why don't you check afterwards. Someone else was working on those arrangements.

Q: Are American officials participating in the conversations with the Iraqi defectors? And if not, are we seeking --

MR. MCCURRY: I indicated earlier I didn't have anything on that.

THE PRESS: Thank you.

END 1:55 P.M. EDT

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

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