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Press Briefing by Mike McCurry

February 07, 1995

The Briefing Room

1:15 P.M. EST

MR. MCCURRY: And a quiet settles over the briefing room as we anticipate the questions. Good afternoon, everyone. It is such a pleasure to be here will all of you today. Let me start by saying that over at the Interior Department today the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has got an interesting announcement. They are announcing a proposal to ease some timber harvest restrictions under the Endangered Species Act. This involves a provision known as Rule 4-D, and it would establish under the Endangered Species Act the first-ever landowner exemptions. It's basically designed to help small landowners to have an exemption from some of the requirements of the Act and it's consistent with the view of the Clinton administration that there is flexibility within the Endangered Species Act that can deal with some of the habitat questions that arise.

Anyhow, I thought that was interesting and wanted to call that to your attention. And I believe that's the only housekeeping item I had.

Q: Do we have prospects of a breakthrough on the baseball strike negotiations?

MR. MCCURRY: There is always hope, but there is certainly no indications at the moment that there is an imminent breakthrough likely.

Q: The President said that the issues involving confusion over the number of abortions that Dr. Foster had performed seemed to have been cleared up. We still haven't gotten an understanding, number one, finally of how many abortions he has performed, not just those in his private practice, but in his hospital work; and also, how it was that the White House seemed to have passed along erroneous information to Senator Kassebaum. Could you enlighten us?

MR. MCCURRY: Let me take them separately, two separate questions. The nominee is now working with members of the administration team that will help him during the confirmation process to assemble an exhaustive account of his medical record, including any pregnancy terminations that he participated in or supervised as part of his work. They will do this knowing that members of the Senate have already indicated a desire to question the nominee more carefully on those points.

And I think it would be -- from my own perspective, it would not wise thing for me to do to begin to address specific cases or specific numbers or instances. I think it's better for the nominee to go back through all of his records, which he's doing now, going back 38 years of practice in which he has literally delivered tens of thousands of babies and treated tens of thousands of patients. I think it's important for him to do the best and most thorough review he can of his record. And then he'll be better equipped to answer questions from the Senate and we'll better equipped to respond to specific inquiries.

We are satisfied, as the President indicated earlier today, that his record is as he has described it publicly, and that the instances in which he has been involved in pregnancy terminations will be both consistent with the law and something that he will be able to explain to the satisfaction of members of the Senate. That is, unless those members of the Senate just happen to take the view that abortion ought to be a criminal act. And there are senators who take that view. But that's maybe what they want this debate to be about. We believe it ought to be about the record of a highly distinguished and capable physician who is in an excellent position to lead the public health interests of all Americans.

Q: Could you answer the second part of the question?

MR. MCCURRY: The second part of the question -- this is very specific information that is being asked of this nominee by both members of the press and members of the Senate. I think on the general question, we are satisfied that we provided accurate information on the general question of whether or not Dr. Foster had performed abortions when asked. I think that we are now in a position to provide more specific information, and the President regrets and has indicated that he regrets the fact that they did not have as specific information available as we should have for Senator Kassebaum. But I believe, if I'm not mistaken, that Secretary Shalala and Senator Kassebaum have discussed this matter. You might want to see -- check with Senator Kassebaum whether she feels her questions are now -- have been satisfactorily addressed.

Q: Mike, how was it that the administration at the start was blind-sided on this? According to Kassebaum's people, she asked, and the initial response was, "we don't know." And then they came back and said there was one therapeutic abortion. Now, this would seem to be an elementary question or a basic question with an OB-GYN.

MR. MCCURRY: Well, I'm not certain at what point that -- you're recalling a conversation that Senator Kassebaum may have had with an administration official. I'm not sure what point that happened during the process by which this administration screens or looks into potential nominees. I think at the point that she posed that question, perhaps, they were still in the process of developing the answers. But in any event, the need was to provide the best possible answer we could to the Senator, and I don't think that we did do that, and we have been able to do that now.

Q: Is there any reason to believe that the number of abortions is substantially different than the estimate of a dozen or fewer?

MR. MCCURRY: I think it's -- the nominee, as again I will stress, is going back through 38 years' worth of his own record to come up with the best and most precise answers. I don't want to get into speculating on numbers. He's indicated, as his statement was very clear, as a private-practicing physician, he recalls at this point fewer than a dozen or so. And I think that he's looking at other aspects of his medical practice and his teaching career and will be in a better position to answer questions from senators during the confirmation process.

Q: Two specific questions. Have you cleared up the origin of the transcript that was being circulated yesterday, whether or not it is accurate, and whether or not it represents -- where Dr. Foster fits into that? And also, did he in his pre-nomination talking with the White House discuss this -- the early '80s abortion pill research project he headed?

MR. MCCURRY: He's -- they are in the process on the first question of looking at that transcript now so that they'll be in a position to know more about that transcript and whether or not that reflects anything he either said at the meeting or that perhaps was misinterpreted that he might have said at the meeting. Secondly, they are then going to do more work on the FDA-related clinical trial that has been in the news, and they'll be able to provide more information about that later.

Q: Well, was that disclosed to the White House, the FDA clinical trial?

MR. MCCURRY: There was -- that aspect of his work was a clinical trial approved by the Federal Drug Administration during the 1980s. And I believe he had published an article about that that was available to the administration prior to his nomination.

Q: Yesterday the President suggested that his support for Foster might be conditional -- he said, "if the facts are as I understand them." Well, does that mean that if Foster, in fact, did not perform fewer than a dozen abortions, the President's support would change? What does that mean?

MR. MCCURRY: No, I -- the President indicated his strong support for the nominee even earlier today, I believe. And that was -- he said his own view is that these questions have been and will be cleared up, and he supports the nominee.

Q: Where is the nominee right now? We haven't seen him. Where is the nominee right now?

MR. MCCURRY: He's working on this exhaustive and complete analysis of his medical record --

Q: In the White House?

MR. MCCURRY: No, he was here -- I believe he was here for a while last night, and he's here in town. He does apparently have an office here in town, because he's here as a visiting scholar or something.

Q: Mike, is General Carns going to be able to crack the whip at the CIA and restore confidence on the Hill?

MR. MCCURRY: General Carns? You mean, that highly distinguished and very capable retired general officer of the Air Force, who may or may not be in the news very shortly? (Laughter.)

Q: Yes, that one.

MR. MCCURRY: Would it be better if -- would you mind too terribly if I allow my boss to hold forth on that question at some appropriate time?

Q: Would he, perhaps, have a news conference in conjunction with that, or -- (laughter.)

MR. MCCURRY: Perhaps -- that would be a good idea.

Q: Any plans for a news conference? Have you asked him about a news conference? Has he indicated a desire to come out and be questioned by all of us?

MR. MCCURRY: He has indicated to me a very strong desire to spend quantities of time with you -- (laughter) -- that he finds extremely enjoyable, and in preparation for that bizarre form of torture -- no, we may have a chance to do that, and we are looking at times in which we might be able to have a session that would give the President an opportunity to talk about all of the things that he would like to talk about.

Q: A number of Democrats came out and said that they wanted the President to do something more to show support for Dr. Foster, saying that stances that he'd taken in the past was something to be proud of, and indicating that they feel that the administration perhaps has not been as supportive as they should. Does the President intend to do that? What does he plan to do to show his support other than just sort of tossing off a little remark as he walks out the door on one of the few opportunities we have to question him?

MR. MCCURRY: Well, there will be an appropriate point once the formal nomination is sent to the Senate for us to talk at great length about this splendid and stellar reputation of someone who has earned support across America for his work both on questions of teenage pregnancy and for his leadership of a very fine educational institution.

I think that it is appropriate for the administration to make sure that we have got the formal paperwork and the records sent up to the Senate so the Senate can properly exercise its advise and consent role. And when that's done, we will then have ample opportunity in connection with Dr. Foster's confirmation hearing to talk a lot about him. There are many people that he knows very, very well that want to be very supportive of him and, in fact, are being very supportive of him. And that will, obviously, include the President as well.

Q: I'm not sure I understand your answer to the earlier question about the President's statement. If you don't know yet the details of the transcript from yesterday, and if he's still assembling his medical records, et cetera, what did the President mean by saying these discrepancies have been cleared up?

MR. MCCURRY: The President did not mean to indicate any doubt about the nomination yesterday. He's indicated to all of us --

Q: No, I'm talking about today, when he said the controversies have been cleared up or the discrepancies have been cleared up, what did he mean by that if all --

MR. MCCURRY: He was referring specifically to the question that arose yesterday involving the question of whether or not Dr. Foster had performed 700 amniocentesis and therapeutic abortions which was the question triggered by this transcript that we're still trying to find out more about. That question I think the President feels has been more than cleared up by having a direct conversation with Dr. Foster who has made it very clear, as he has made very clear -- as we made very clear to you yesterday that that does not represent his medical record.

Q: Did he call Dr. Foster then yesterday, Mike, to ask him about this?

MR. MCCURRY: Yes, he was called at some point yesterday afternoon by the folks at HHS who are working with him, and then he was here last night and people had a chance to have additional conversations with him.

Q: Was he called over here last night for that reason?

MR. MCCURRY: I think he was -- they've been meeting on and off in preparation for his confirmation proceeding.

Q: Did he meet with the President last night?

Q: You stressed over and over from the podium --

Q: Is that a yes?

Q: as did Dr. Foster's statement, the comparatively small number of abortions that he has performed. Is it the administration's feeling that a doctor who had performed, let's say, hundreds of perfectly legal abortions would not be qualified for the job of surgeon general?

MR. MCCURRY: I need to be -- I want to answer that; that's a double negative in there if I answer it that way. The administration believes that the number of pregnancy terminations conducted by a highly qualified physician ought to not be -- ought not to be a factor or bear on the fitness of that person to serve as the nominee.

Q: Can we have the lights as well --

Q: To come back to the question you're dancing around -- did the President have a direct conversation with Dr. Foster?

MR. MCCURRY: Not that I know of. I mean, I was in and out of the meeting, but I think he was working with some of the staff people here; I don't believe he was there. But going back to the question before -- the administration -- the President and the administration does not feel that the number of abortions is a factor in making a nomination. What we're looking for is someone who is highly qualified, who can do an excellent job in promoting the public health of Americans, and who has views consistent with the views of this President and this administration, as Dr. Foster surely has.

Q: With whom did Dr. Foster meet here at the White House?

Q: Mike, you also said the President didn't have a problem with --

MR. MCCURRY: Hold on a second -- Brian, it was a large collection of people both from HHS and from the White House. And they were going through just questions, anticipating questions and outlining the work that now needs to be done in great detail to compile, as I described it earlier, very exhaustive account of his medical practice and his work as a physician.

Q: This morning you said the problem that President knew about the number of abortions and didn't have a problem with that.

MR. MCCURRY: I said that he knew that Dr. Foster had in his practice conducted abortions, pregnancy terminations, and was aware of that at the time that he made the nomination, yes.

Q: Is he surprised at the reaction on the Hill, given that --

MR. MCCURRY: No, I think he's only surprised that there were those that would make this nominee's -- make this nomination a litmus test on the issue of choice. And that is what's happening here. That is, those who would suggest that anything that Dr. Foster has done, which is certainly legal and certainly within the bounds of medical ethics, ought to be made illegal. And that ultimately is what those fighting this nomination are raising, is the fundamental question of a right of a woman to choose. They would like to deny that right, and moreover, would like to prevent doctors like Dr. Foster from discussing those types of procedures with patients. That's what this is about.

Q: Did the group working have copies of those transcripts purporting to have him talk to the ethics group about the number of amniocentesis --

MR. MCCURRY: I do not know for a fact whether they had it. I believe they did not, because my understanding is they just have been able to acquire that full transcript today, and they're trying to sort that all out now.

Q: At some point, President Clinton has become convinced that whatever is involved there, Dr. Foster has cleared it, judging from what the President said this morning, that he's confident.

MR. MCCURRY: He's confident. The question raised with him yesterday before he met with some of you, or prior to his call to the space shuttle was the question about this transcript and about whether or not Dr. Foster had conducted 700 therapeutic abortions and amniocentesis procedures. And that was the question yesterday that he had just been advised of that information. I believe today he was indicating that, as far as he's concerned, that specific question was resolved by the conversation we had with Dr. Foster.

Q: Mike, when he said yesterday "if the facts are as I understand them," meaning --

MR. MCCURRY: About the 700 cases.

Q: Right, meaning that he didn't perform 700.

MR. MCCURRY: Correct.

Q: But was he implying that if he had performed 700 -- in other words, there was something that would make his support less -- there was some number that would make his support less strong, or what was he --

MR. MCCURRY: No, the issue was not the number of abortions, the question was, yes, we want to make sure we have accurate information and facts.

Q: Why did he phrase it in a conditional way yesterday?

MR. MCCURRY: He's now indicated to many of us that he did not mean to do that because it clearly created questions that he did not intend to create.

Q: Mike, some of the critics of Dr. Foster on the Hill are now suggesting that if it turns out that the number less than a dozen is not correct, that the issue becomes credibility rather than choice. Can you address that?

MR. MCCURRY: Well, the members of the Senate will have to judge that for themselves as they go through the advice and consent process.

Q: Who was the most high-ranking person meeting with Foster last night? I mean, you said, broad range. Can you give --

MR. MCCURRY: I don't -- did you guys stick your head in at all? I can't recall who all was there. I know that, as I indicated to some of you earlier, Deputy Chief of Staff Erskine Bowles has been tasked with sort of working through the White House end of the confirmation process. So I suspect he was probably from the White House side, the highest ranking.

Q: Panetta wasn't in there?

MR. MCCURRY: I don't believe so. I was not in the entire meeting myself. I was in and out.

Q: Can I ask you a question on Peres? Is Peres going to meet with the President today?

MR. MCCURRY: I'm not sure. There was one suggestion that he was, but I think the latest information we have is that he is not.

Q: Back on that issue of credibility --

MR. MCCURRY: He will be, as you know, he will be here for a while this week, I think, because they've got the meeting on Sunday with the other foreign ministers involved in the peace process.

Q: Are you saying, on the issue of credibility, are you saying that if it turns out the number of abortions was in the neighborhood of 700 that the President would not be disturbed at all by having been --

MR. MCCURRY: No, the question is whether or not the number somehow or other is bearing on qualification. I don't believe the number is an issue.

Q: Even in terms of his credibility? He said it was about a dozen; if it turns out to be 700, the President wouldn't be bothered by that?

MR. MCCURRY: He's now given us the facts, and the facts are as we understand them.

Q: Mike, on baseball, Senator Dole said today that the baseball owners and players should not look to Congress to settle their dispute for them. Does that cause the White House a problem as it ponders its options with William Usery coming here later today?

MR. MCCURRY: What did he say?

Q: He said that the players and owners should not look to Congress to resolve the dispute for them.

MR. MCCURRY: Why? Why would anyone who loves baseball want to take a tool off the table that might be useful in helping it convince the players and owners to try harder to settle their strike? That doesn't make a lot of sense.

Q: Why would anybody who loved baseball want to get Congress mixed up with it? (Laughter.)

MR. MCCURRY: You notice that as our friend, the correspondent, moved to this side he now believes that he's --

Q: left side of the room, Mike. Left side of the room

MR. MCCURRY: -- in the peanut gallery. (Laughter.)

Q: Well, does that mean one of your options --

MR. MCCURRY: Because one of -- one option that has been discussed and could conceivably available would be to ask Congress for the permission, in a sense, to submit this to binding arbitration. That might be a useful tool depending on what happens in the next several hours. But I'm not sure -- I'm not sure it helps the process at this delicate moment when we still got the parties walking around the idea of trying to settle that we take anything off the table by ruling something out.

Q: So basically what you're suggesting is that Dole and Gingrich and others who are saying Congress should not have any role in this are undermining your negotiating -- Usery's negotiating position at this delicate moment.

MR. MCCURRY: I think that it's a delicate moment, and I think the President would prefer if all involved give every support they can to the mediator that he has asked to try to help negotiate the dispute.

Q: Can you walk us through what's going to happen at 3:00 p.m. when this new deadline comes and goes? MR. MCCURRY: We can do that -- we can do that later on. Q: Mike, is this situation in baseball one that justifies

calling a national emergency by the President? Can he do that?

MR. MCCURRY: It depends on how much you love baseball. I mean, I consider it a national emergency; not that my opinion counts. But I think that it does have an economic impact, and in some cases dire economic impact on some communities. But in terms of national emergency in the sense that we've seen collective bargaining issues in which former presidents of the United States have been involved, it's hard to imagine that this approaches that level of national emergency. It's not a steel crisis, it's not a railway crisis.

Q: Mike, has the President spoken to Senator Dole or Speaker Gingrich or any other leaders in Congress to try and enlist their cooperation?

MR. MCCURRY: The President has not. As it has become increasingly clear that we may have to have some options connected to Mr. Usery's recommendations, I believe that we are starting some staff-level contacts.

Q: Does the President believe he has options to push, if not force, the players back on the field without help from Congress?

MR. MCCURRY: I don't know what you mean by "push." I mean, I think that he has publicly indicated his desire to see the season start, get the players back on the field and get the owners in a position to conduct the full schedule of games for 1995, but that's -- in that sense, a little push by way of jawboning is something that I think he feels is appropriate; indeed, has been doing.

Q: Will Usery have a proposal ready to put on the table when he comes here at 3:00 p.m.?

MR. MCCURRY: He will have, as he indicated yesterday, recommendations he's prepared to make to the President, yes.

Q: But there's no mechanism giving the President authority to do anything specific on his own?

MR. MCCURRY: I'm not aware under law of a specific mechanism that he'd have available to him. That's one of the reasons why there's speculation that has arisen about having to go to Congress to seek that type of mechanism.

Q: Has anybody thought this through?


Q: So you knew what you were going to do at each turn, whatever the outcome?

MR. MCCURRY: Well, Brit, knew that there were several options. You've got two parties in a dispute, and two parties in dispute can act differently to the presence of a mediator from outside. The presence -- we thought through that. The presence of a mediator, a third-party mediator, can often help two parties in conflict see their dispute through new eyes, in a sense. That was the first option. There was an option, or a likelihood, or a possibility that would not happen. That was considered.

Knowing a little bit about the nature of the conflict and the fact that it's gone on for 180 days, it's pretty clear that both sides were dug into some positions, so there was a good possibility that neither side would want to accept any recommendation or suggestions from an outside party. And there's also the possibility that one or the other of the parties would accept it, and you'd end up with a split decision.

But I think all of those -- setting aside all those different scenarios, when the President looked at the question of getting involved, he said, listen, this is baseball; I am the President; it makes every sense in the world for me to use whatever authority I can, whatever public posture I can to bring the conflict to an end. I think he did it in the interest of the fans; he did it in the interest of those communities that depend on baseball and those workers that depend on baseball; and he did it because he likes the game and hopes that Americans will have access to the game in the coming year.

Q: So you're not -- you seem carefully not to be ruling out the possibility that at the end of this day or so, that if the matter remains unresolved, the President will say, well, I did my best, sorry, end of my involvement.

MR. MCCURRY: Well, that might be a possibility, or he might suggest other courses of action. We'll just have to see what we get from Mr. Usery and what kind of recommendation comes in.

Q: Have you heard the President express who he thinks is most at fault in this?

MR. MCCURRY: No. I've heard him say, I think as he said to some of you, that of both sides, all those involved, a number fewer than a couple hundred, and they ought to be able to figure it out. I think his sense of exasperation with all those in this conflict is what comes through loudest and most clearly.

Q: Mike, do you have a sense that the Republicans may be trying to fend off congressional involvement because they don't the President to get credit for settling this strike?

Q: Oooh.

Q: Heaven forbid.

MR. MCCURRY: Oh, I wouldn't -- would I suggest such motive? No, of course not.

Q: Is there not an expectation to this, though, that people got the impression the President could do more than what he has the authority to actually do?

MR. MCCURRY: No, I -- well, I don't know. I mean, you've all seen the same information that we have available to us. There's some people that suggest it would be better for government not to be involved. And, frankly, we've got some sense of that ourselves, as we've told you all along, that collective bargaining disputes ought to be resolved by the parties themselves and negotiations directly face to face between parties is the best way to solve that type of conflict. But sometimes you do need help from third parties. And we've offered that help through a mediator. I believe the President feels like he's offered that help now by trying to encourage them to bring this to an end, in a sense jawboning a little bit. And I think he -- as I say, I think he felt he deserved to give it that try. That's something that goes with that positioning now holds.

Q: Can you make the letter public from the players?

MR. MCCURRY: I know that's really something that I'll have to leave to Mr. Usery, because it clearly was designed to reflect the players' point of view about the negotiation and, obviously, we continue to hope that they will engage directly with the owners. So I'll leave that up to him.

Q: Can you confirm that North Korea rejected a contract drafted by the administration because it --

MR. MCCURRY: I can only confirm for you that there continue to be a lot of discussions on forming the Korean Energy Development Organization, KEDO, and clearly, that is a negotiation that the DPRK is following very closely, and that they're expressing opinions about. Our view remains that South Korea should play a leading role in the formation of KEDO, and the negotiations and discussions about that are continuing.

Q: And they have not rejected it yet, formally?

MR. MCCURRY: I think I would leave that -- the State Department is going to go at some greater detail into the discussions they've held so far. I don't think it would be accurate to say that they have finally and irrevocably rejected that proposition.

Q: Mike, do you know if the legislative package that's being worked up on immigration, how much farther that goes than from what was discussed today?

MR. MCCURRY: No, I don't. I mean, the best answer I have to that is the one that the briefers had earlier today.

Q: On Mexico, Mexico sees immigration as a very sore spot. How are the conversations? With the new package the President has announced today, how are the talks on Mexico on helping contain illegal immigration?

MR. MCCURRY: Well, I think that the President's announcement today is in the context of the very strong and decisive action taken last week to help Mexico weather that economic crisis. The President's interest is in a long-term, strong, growing Mexican economy because that is the best antedote to illegal immigration. So I'm certain that the government of Mexico -- and we certainly would hope the people of Mexico -- will place the steps that we're taking to protect our borders in the context of the action the President has already taken and suffered some criticism for to help the Mexican economy weather the current crisis in the peso.

Q: Thank you. (Laughter.)

MR. MCCURRY: Is this a gag order? (Laughter.) "Say thank you."

Q: Mike, part of the funding for the President's immigration package is border transfer tax on cars and people. The Canadians say it's absurd and that they will retaliate if we do it. Do we still think this is a good way to go?

MR. MCCURRY: Well, we will have an opportunity to discuss that type of issue with them shortly when the President visits Ottawa. We believe that that is a matter that we can address in bilateral conversations, but we also think it will be an opportunity for us to make clear that the fees generated by -- or the border fees would generate revenue that would allow us to improve certain aspects of monitoring along the border that are in the best interest of both the United States and the people of Canada.

THE PRESS: Thank you.

END 1:49 P.M. EST

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

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