Press Briefing by Mike McCurry
The Briefing Room
5:25 P.M. EST
MR. MCCURRY: Good afternoon, ladies and gentlemen. It's a pleasure to be with you for the second time today -- not. (Laughter.) Let me -- can I start by reading a statement from the President, which we'll have available in written form shortly.
From the President: Henry Cisneros' service as Secretary of Housing and Urban Development has been outstanding, and I know him to be a man of integrity and character. The Attorney General has determined that the facts warrant the appointment of an independent counsel to inquire into the question that she believes is a "close and difficult factual and legal issue." Secretary Cisneros is a good man and an effective public servant. He says he regrets any mistakes he has made. So do I. But that does not outweigh the excellent work he has been doing and will do as Secretary of Housing and Urban Development. I look forward to his continued valuable service.
Q: Mike, Secretary Espy was touted by the President as being an excellent Agriculture Secretary. Yet he resigned, and the President accepted his resignation after an independent counsel was named. What's the difference this time?
MR. MCCURRY: Each and every case has to be considered on its merits and judged on its merits. I don't think you can compare situations that other public servants have been in.
Q: Tell us about the President's contact with the Secretary.
MR. MCCURRY: Secretary Cisneros had a conversation with the President prior to Secretary Cisneros' public statement earlier this afternoon. The President called the Secretary.
Q: And what did the President say to him? Did he urge him to fight?
MR. MCCURRY: He said that -- the President reviewed the situation with Secretary Cisneros, reviewed the statement with the Attorney General. They discussed that, and the President told the Secretary that he would stand with him. The Secretary, during the course of that conversation, said, I don't want to do anything that would hurt you, and clearly said he would be willing to exercise his options. The President said that would not be necessary and that they should stick together.
Q: Did he offer to resign?
Q: suggesting he would resign?
Q: The reason the Secretary is under this investigation is that he made some statements which he has acknowledged were not true. Does the fact, regardless of whether that happens legally to be criminal or not -- does not the fact that he made these statements, acknowledges that they're false, the President sees no need for him to step aside suggest a rather high degree of tolerance for behavior which the President himself says he regrets?
MR. MCCURRY: The President indicated that he regrets mistakes that were made, and I think it's also fair to say that not every mistake requires capital punishment.
Q: Coming back to this statement, is "exercising his options" a euphemism for Secretary Cisneros offering to resign, and could you tell us about that?
MR. MCCURRY: Yes.
Q: Could you explain that? So essentially --
MR. MCCURRY: They reviewed the situation. Secretary Cisneros has said publicly he would not do anything to hurt the President. And they asked for an assessment. The Secretary indicated he would be willing to submit his resignation. The President said that would not be necessary in this case.
Q: In her filing with the court, the Attorney General points out that when Cisneros made these false statements, he was under consideration for Cabinet position. Would it have made any difference had he told the truth about the amounts involved? And is the President disappointed that he apparently obtained his position under false pretenses?
MR. MCCURRY: Nothing contained in the statement of the Attorney General today would have changed the President's determination to nominate Henry Cisneros as Secretary of Housing and Urban Development.
Q: Does what happened today -- does the naming of the --
MR. MCCURRY: Let me back up one second. Nothing pertaining to the payments that were made to the individual in question.
Q: There are now two independent counsels looking into one Cabinet member and a former Cabinet member. The Justice Department is trying to determine whether to name independent counsels in the case of two other Cabinet members. Does all this undermine the President's commitment to a Cabinet, an administration that would be squeaky clean, beyond reproach?
MR. MCCURRY: Absolutely not.
Q: Does this help his commitment to make it a Cabinet that looks like America?
MR. MCCURRY: I think that he's very satisfied that he has a Cabinet that resembles America.
Q: Mike, is there any concern that since the charges or these investigations all involved, to follow up on Brit's question, all involved racial minorities in the Cabinet, that that somehow undercuts or undermines his objective, which was to make his Cabinet and administration look more like America?
MR. MCCURRY: Are you asking whether we believe that these individual members have been targeted with independent counsel because they're racial minorities?
Q: No, I'm not asking that. I'm asking, because the President has made such a commitment to make his Cabinet look more like America, it's been said that perhaps he rushed into a lot of these appointments without proper vetting, that the process was not followed perhaps as --
MR. MCCURRY: That's absurd. I'm sure no one serious says that.
Q: But, Mike, this is a serious question, because the President has made this effort and commitment to making his Cabinet look more like America that a lot of these charges now involve those Cabinet members who are of a racial minority. Does that somehow lead to a --
MR. MCCURRY: That is really a woefully misbegotten question to suggest somehow rather that because you're considering diversity and considering casting a wide net that that somehow lowers the threshold for integrity and ethics in the Cabinet. That's just a very misbegotten --
Q: Isn't the question whether he is being tolerant of these people in furtherance of his commitment to reach out to try to bring together a Cabinet that looks like America?
MR. MCCURRY: I think it's very, very important, as they Attorney General has done, to judge each and every one of these cases by the facts presented regarding a case involving an individual. To lump them together somehow or other and to try to make generalizations based on race or based on different fact patterns is not fair to any of the individuals involved, nor to the President.
Q: But, Mike, but fairly or unfairly, does it lead to this perception that somehow his efforts to create this Cabinet to look more America have somehow fallen short?
MR. MCCURRY: I certainly hope not.
Q: The legal issue seems to be this narrow one of whether the false statements made to the FBI were material false statements. But Attorney General Reno states flatly in her filing that there were false statements made, that Henry Cisneros lied to the FBI. Would you care to comment on what the President's position about his nominee's lying to the FBI --
MR. MCCURRY: Yes. The President very clearly in his statement says that he regrets mistakes that were made.
Q: Does the President believe that the payments were also regrettable, or does he believe that they were an honorable thing? Or what is his view of the payments?
MR. MCCURRY: I think that he believes that Henry Cisneros is a man of character and integrity, as he says in his statement.
Q: What about the payments? Isn't that at the heart of this?
MR. MCCURRY: No. At the heart of it is -- that's not at the heart of the statement of the Attorney General today. It's a different question that relates to the materiality of certain facts covered in the statement presented today. It's a different issue.
Q: The payments are not at issue? I understand about the Attorney General --
MR. MCCURRY: The payments are not at issue. I believe the fact of the payments were well-known at the time of the nomination.
Q: But does the President believe that they were the right thing to do, or does he also regret the payments?
MR. MCCURRY: I believe that the President feels that Secretary Cisneros has tried to weather this personal situation and keep his family together. And I think he has some degree of admiration for the Secretary's efforts to do that.
Q: Wouldn't the politically convenient thing have been to simply cut your losses and let Cisneros go?
MR. MCCURRY: I don't -- that's up to others who are more knowledgeable about politics to assess whether or not that would have been more expedient. The President did what he felt was the right thing to do.
Q: Has Cisneros explained or do you know why he lied?
MR. MCCURRY: That's making a presumption that certain facts that will now be looked at by an independent counsel are indeed correct. I think the Secretary will have to address that in the course of a very appropriate inquiry that will proceed from here.
Q: And do you think a hearing in the Senate or in the House into this matter is appropriate, and would you cooperate?
MR. MCCURRY: It's most likely inevitable, but that's another sign of the times we live in, I think. We will -- Secretary Cisneros has already indicated his willingness to cooperate.
Q: Just to follow up on that, Mike -- this is an agency that is being targeted for cuts by some of the people on the Hill. Are you at all concerned that having a guy as the head of this agency who is under investigation is going to make it harder to fend against cuts?
MR. MCCURRY: The President, as he says in his statement, looks forward to the continued valuable service of Secretary Cisneros. Secretary Cisneros himself points out that this is a critical time for the agency as he moves forward with the effort to reinvent government and to restructure the department. And the President has confidence that that work can continue without disruption.
Q: Did you think that you could not afford to go through a confirmation fight and that's why you would prefer to --
MR. MCCURRY: That is not a factor in the consideration of the President.
Q: Mike, the President in his recent news conference when asked about all these matters said, "We live in a time now where the first thing people call for is a special counsel -- continuing -- I mean we really have to ask ourselves whether we're creating a climate here and a lot of people will be reluctant to serve." And he went on to say a thing or two about how easy it is to trigger this process. He's not the first President who's remarked upon this. Indeed, his predecessor let the law lapse because of similar concerns. Is the President now beginning to have misgivings about this independent counsel process for which he once expressed enthusiasm?
MR. MCCURRY: The President, I think, in the statement you just quoted, made his feelings pretty well-known on that subject. He pointed out there is a low threshold. That's probably appropriate, but it ought to be recognized by those who report on these proceedings that there is also a low threshold, and that should be acknowledged. As long as that is made available to the public as point of information what triggers an independent counsel and how it works is by design a relatively low threshold, I think people would profit from that. It's important to remind Americans that not everything requires hyperventilation.
Q: Fair enough. But that in no way diminishes the burden that this will place on Mr. Cisneros and the other officials who are so involved, for legal fees, for the anguish of the whole process. Is not there some feeling beginning to set in here that maybe this whole thing goes a little far?
MR. MCCURRY: Brit, that's a hard question for me to answer. You're making a presumption about how involved this process will be. The facts as they are presented here seem fairly straightforward, and the process will now proceed. But I believe, and I believe the President believes that this should not interfere with Secretary Cisneros' ability to continue doing a very effective job as Secretary of Housing and Urban Development.
Q: This administration has had numerous vetting problems. What kind of signal does it send if the President's willing to say he regrets incorrect information --
MR. MCCURRY: Well, the vetting process in this case in a sense worked, because this information in its general outline was available to the President prior to the nomination.
Q: But the FBI did not get the correct information on the payments.
MR. MCCURRY: That's not the question. The general issue was known to the President at the time of the nomination.
Q: Was there an explanation, Mike, as to why there was a difference in what he told the FBI originally and --
MR. MCCURRY: No, and I decline to get into that area, because that might, indeed, be the province of the independent counsel. It wouldn't be appropriate for me to comment on that.
Q: I believe you've answered this, but just for the record, you've got two other Cabinet members who may soon be in this similar situation. Is it -- are we to infer from what you've said that each case will be treated differently, and the President has no policy on whether Cabinet officials can serve under investigation?
MR. MCCURRY: The President believes that each of these cases ought to be judged on what the facts are as presented, what the determinations are made by the Attorney General, and ultimately what conclusions are reached by any independent counsel. If one is, in fact, impaneled to pursue matters. But it's wrong to lump them all together and to try to generalize, based on specific facts that might not compare from case to case.
Q: Mike, as you've just noted, almost every news story that going to be written or has been written about this is going to recount all of these investigations and potential investigations. What is the public to surmise from this?
MR. MCCURRY: My guess is that the public will assume that it's -- it is not unlike what they are often treated to in Washington, and it's a reflection of the fact the standard of scrutiny -- we talked about this over this past weekend -- has changed very considerably. And as I've said to some of you, it's probably a very good thing that we didn't have background checks and independent counsels in the days of Thomas Jefferson. I'm not sure where the republic would be today if we had that.
Q: The duration of the phone call, Mike -- do you have any idea how long they talked?
MR. MCCURRY: Wasn't long.
THE PRESS: Thank you.
END5:38 P.M. EST
William J. Clinton, Press Briefing by Mike McCurry Online by Gerhard Peters and John T. Woolley, The American Presidency Project https://www.presidency.ucsb.edu/node/269892