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Press Briefing by Mike McCurry

February 16, 1995

The Briefing Room

1:15 P.M. EST

MR. MCCURRY: Let's start the briefing. An announcement. The President of the United States of America is delighted to announce that he has a new political director. He is Douglas B. Sosnik, who will be a new Assistant to the President and Director of Political Affairs. Mr. Sosnik has served since 1993 as Deputy Assistant to the President for Legislative Affairs. From 1991 to 1993 he was Chief of Staff to Senator Christopher Dodd, now the General Chairman of the Democratic National Committee. And prior to that, he served as Political Director of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, and as Chief of Staff to Representative Bob Carr. Mr. Sosnik who, at 38 years old, has a Bachelor of Arts Degree from Duke University, is a splendid political talent.

The President of the United States says, "Doug has spent his career in politics and government at the national level. His combination of White House, congressional and political experience both in the House and the Senate will serve me particularly well."

On a personal note, I've had an opportunity to work with Doug. I think rare are the people in politics who combine strategic thinking and tactical smarts the way Doug does very, very well, and it will be a pleasure to have him here on the White House staff.

Q: Mike, where does the President stand on Ron Brown now that there are these allegations that he may have engaged in criminal behavior while he was Commerce Secretary, as opposed to activities that may have been improper before he became Commerce Secretary?

MR. MCCURRY: The President stands right where I've reported him to you in the past to be. He has asked his White House Legal Counsel to monitor these developments very carefully, and Judge Mikva has been doing exactly that, requesting specific information from Secretary Brown's legal counsel, and we will continue to monitor this matter very, very carefully.

Q: Does the President still have full confidence in Secretary Brown?

MR. MCCURRY: He does, indeed.

Q: Is it your sense that the allegations coming from Congressman Clinger and others on the Hill are simply politically motivated, or is there any substance to these allegations?

MR. MCCURRY: I have no idea, but I do know that if members of Congress have legitimate questions that they wish to pose to Secretary Brown, Secretary Brown will be forthcoming and will respond.

Q: They claim that he hasn't, that he has delayed in over a year in submitting documentation and answering questions.

MR. MCCURRY: I believe that Secretary Brown's legal counsel has addressed himself to that.

Q: Has the White House instruction to the Secretary to be cooperative with Congress?

MR. MCCURRY: Of course. We expect Cabinet members to be cooperative as we are cooperative.

Q: What about the Jesse Brown trips to Chicago? Where does that stand?

MR. MCCURRY: Did they ever -- they responded to that, and issued, I believe, a letter. It was in the form of a letter to the editor of The Los Angeles Times which carried one of the first stories on this. That's available from VA.

Q: Is the Counsel's Office here looking into that, too?

MR. MCCURRY: They had discussions and were aware of the form -- the drafting of the letter to the editor. I think they monitored that.

Q: Just tying up one final loose end. On the -- investigation broadening the Espy investigation to look at the Clinton's relationship with Tyson Foods, do you have anything that you could explain on that?

MR. MCCURRY: I don't, Wolf. I'll have to check with those who are following that more carefully.

Q: How about Whitewater since we're on the scandal beat? (Laughter.)

MR. MCCURRY: I'm not a knowledgeable source on that.

Q: Do you have a Whitewater spokesman yet?

MR. MCCURRY: No, they've -- I think they first are helping round out the legal time, as I reported to you last week, and they are doing that, and I think they've got a couple of names on that.

Q: Mike, the stock market in Mexico continues to drop. The peso has dropped below six today. There's a lot of nervousness among other foreign markets, emerging markets. When is there going to be an agreement between the U.S. government and the Mexican government to disperse the money?

MR. MCCURRY: Well, we believe we are continuing to make good progress with the Mexican authorities to implement the measures that have been previously announced, and particularly those that deal with medium-term support. As you know, there have been short-term measures taken, but we're now moving into a question of medium and longer-term structures for the financial facility available. There are Mexican -- high-ranking Mexican officials meeting with the Treasury Department today. The Mexican finance minister is here meeting with Secretary Rubin and other officials. So I'd like to steer you over to Treasury, since they'll be able to give you more of a read-out on where those discussions stand.

Q: Can you give us your promised or threatened take on the Yeltsin speech and the allegations about his personality --

MR. MCCURRY: Well, let me -- some of you have probably seen the initial reports on the speech, which we've been studying closely. This is his State of the Federation speech in front of the Duma; obviously a very important speech. He focused largely on domestic issues. There were some foreign policy questions addressed. We are particularly pleased and welcome the commitment that he has made to democratization, especially the parliamentary and presidential elections that were scheduled for December 1995 and June 1996 will be held as specified by the Russian Constitution.

Likewise, we welcome his renewed commitment to economic reform, including continued privatization and tight budget to bring inflation under control. We also note that on Chechnya, while defending the use of the military in Chechnya, he did acknowledge that the military operations themselves were flawed and that they violated the rights of citizens. That was an important acknowledgement by President Yeltsin.

I think, on balance, the speech certainly reaffirms our view that Boris Yeltsin is in charge of Russian policy and remains committed to reform. The important question now for the Russian people, and I believe for Russia's partners in the world community as well, is what specific actions will follow from the commitments that the President has made. We'll be watching that very carefully.

On your question about more of the personal side of this, certainly President Yeltsin looked strong and in control, just as he has in every contact that this administration has had with him of recent dates.

Q: Where do you stand in discussions with Yeltsin about a summit?

MR. MCCURRY: Our discussions continue on when we might move ahead with what would be the normal pattern of summit meetings -- one later on this year. There's been no firm decision on a date, and we will continue to have discussions with the Russian government about when best the two presidents might meet.

Q: Mike, as I understand it, administration officials felt that Yeltsin had to either commit to or accomplish certain things before the United States would agree. What specifically does the administration look to from Yeltsin before the President would agree to attending a summit?

MR. MCCURRY: Well, the President -- when President Yeltsin and President Clinton met in September, they did agree in theory to meet again in the first half of 1995. And that is reflecting the work we do with the Russian government and at the highest level on the broad range of issues that define the bilateral relationship we have with Russia. There's no particular litmus test of issues that we apply. We have a working relationship with Russia that is best served and further served by meetings at the highest level at the appropriate time. They are just in discussions now about when that appropriate time might be.

Q: But you make it sound like there's a problem.

MR. MCCURRY: I shouldn't -- then I'm not flapping my mouth in the right direction because there's not a problem.

Q: Are you saying that it's just a matter of scheduling?

MR. MCCURRY: Well, it's a matter of scheduling, it's a matter of what is the status of the bilateral relationship. Secretary Christopher met recently with the Russian Foreign Minister. It's when the two presidents in dialogue might most fruitfully and productively advance a very important bilateral relationship. There are many factors that go into making that type of judgment.

Q: President Yeltsin's specific invitation for a meeting in May has been out there for more than a month now.

MR. MCCURRY: Well, it may -- that, as you know, has been discussed between the Secretary of State and the Russian Foreign Minister, and that may or may not be the optimum time for a summit. There may be a future -- a future date might be more helpful in terms of the relationship, but that's one of the things that will be worked out in close consultations with the Russian government.

Q: Mike, what significance do you attach to the vote of the House last night on Star Wars, particularly with regard to future defense spending levels under the pressure of the balanced budget amendment, and also, your prospect for eventually peeling off some of the moderate Republicans on other issues.

MR. MCCURRY: It would be sheer folly to go back and reconstruct one of the debates that this country settled in the 1980s. It makes little sense to pour billions and billions of dollars into a defense shield that may or may not work when there are other higher priorities, even in the area of missile defense, that ought to be addressed by a resource -- a prudent, resource-minded defense budget. That is an argument that was very articulately made by the Secretary of Defense and the Secretary of State as they analyzed the national security revitalization act before the House, and among the reasons why they recommended to the President that he veto the bill if the bill is in its current shape, is precisely because it would have made this commitment, forced this commitment to spend billions of dollars that might not wisely be spent on something that might not be attainable.

The Secretary of Defense has spoken out on this; for that reason, we believe that our powers of persuasion may have been in evidence last night when the House rejected the Star Wars provision in the national security revitalization act. If that issue is revisited, we would continue to make a very strong argument that Star Wars spending at this time when we have to prudently manage the defense budget does not seem to be a wise course, and along with the other aspects of this bill that are unacceptable to the President, put it in the category of something that needs a lot more work before it can come in a satisfactory form here to the President.

Q: Politically, since this was the first big crack in the Contract with America, do you evaluate this as a one-time thing, or do you see this as a precedent for possible --

MR. MCCURRY: Oh, that it would be. (Laughter.) But we have no way of knowing. Certainly, a very persuasive case was made on that amendment. Many Republicans came over to join Democrats to defeat the concept of billions more for Star Wars. On other areas, you see on the Senate side now a revisiting of the crime bill. You see a lot of rethinking going on on education. I suspect it's accurate to say that many in the majority are beginning to revisit aspects of the Contract that perhaps were not well-thought-through.

Q: Mike, back on Yeltsin. Yeltsin in his speech said his military intervention in Chechnya was justified because of criminal activity there, because the government there was something like the Columbian drug cartels. Do you accept that explanation; do you agree with it?

MR. MCCURRY: Well, the views that we have on Chechnya have been made very clear to President Yeltsin as recently as his phone call with President Clinton earlier in the week. We believe that there are legitimate law enforcement matters that can be addressed by the Russian government. We recognize the territorial integrity of the Russian Federation, which includes Chechnya. But we have been seriously concerned about instances where force has been misapplied in the resolution of this conflict. And that was specifically addressed by the President, as I indicated earlier.

The President has offered a explanation of the military operation in Chechnya. Whether that is satisfactory or not is largely a judgment that the Russian people will have to make.

Q: Mike, one more thing on Yeltsin. You said he looked strong and in control as he has in every encounter we have had with him --


Q: which does not include some video that's come out recently, showing him looking anything but. Has the U.S. had the chance to evaluate that video? Has it seen it, and what's the assessment?

MR. MCCURRY: Well, I believe you've seen accurately reported that people have seen it. Our basis for evaluating a matter like that relies on many factors -- I'm not going to get into every aspect of how we analyze questions like that, but it goes well beyond watching pieces of videotape. We've had opportunities to have good, productive, fruitful, face-to-face meetings with President Yeltsin, and he gives every indication of being firmly committed to democracy, to reform, and firmly in control of the Russian government that he heads.

Q: Mike, last week the President and Chancellor Kohl both expressed concern that if no agreement with the Chechans were achieved before spring that the fighting might intensify in the spring. Would the President go to a summit if there is still fighting in Chechnya?

MR. MCCURRY: Well, we have made very clear that the resolution of the Chechan conflict is something that is of great concern to us and to the world community -- others that we've met with. Certainly Chancellor Kohl shared that view when he met with President Clinton.

This is a very important strategic relationship that has many facets. It is not defined by the conflict in Chechnya by no means, but taking full advantage of the many possibilities and opportunities in this relationship is easier if an impediment like the conflict in Chechnya is successfully resolved.

Q: Before the mult gets cut, would you assess the Iraqi oil reports today?

MR. MCCURRY: They're going to do a lot more on that over at the State Department today. I'll give you a kind of truncated version. Our assessment is that The New York Times got a report today saying about 200,000 barrels of oil a day are being siphoned off and sold, contrary to the U.N. sanctions on the regime that's in place on Iraq. That estimate is much higher than our own experts. Our own experts estimate that it's more in the neighborhood of 80,000 to 100,000 barrels a day. That is a fraction of -- I think, Iraq was doing about 2.5 million barrels a day prior to the Persian Gulf War, so this represents some small fraction of what their output was prior to the war. But it is, nonetheless, troubling that Iraq is finding ways to evade the sanctions regime that has been in place.

We have done a lot of work at the United Nations with governments in the region, with, in fact, with others in the international community to enhance the enforcement of the sanctions regime. This is largely through the multinational interdiction, the IMF, which is in place in the Arabian Gulf in which it does a lot of the interceptions of ships that may or may not be moving. There are some reports, you've seen in this story about stuff moving across borders, and we'll be watching that very carefully, taking any evidence that we develop to the U.N. Sanctions Committee in pursuing it because we remain convinced that Iraq is not in full compliance with relevant U.N. Security Council resolutions, and it needs to be if it is to have any relief from the sanctions that are in place.

One footnote on this, the oil sales by Iraq are foreseen and allowed under the U.N. sanctions regime, under U.N. Security Council resolutions 706 and 712 -- aren't you sorry that you asked this question?

Q: Is there a truncated version? (Laughter.)

MR. MCCURRY: But the point is that that is foreseen, it is foreseen that Iraq would be allowed to sell some oil, but it's to provide humanitarian relief to the Kurds in the North and the Shia in the South. So, you know, oil sales by Iraq is something that we hope would be undertaken, consistent with the relevant U.N. Security Council resolutions.

That's about enough on that subject -- unless Wolf -- (Laughter.) I've got Wolf interested if he wants to pursue it.

Q: Well, is the allegation that the Kurds in the North and elements in Turkey, that they are cooperating with this smuggling of oil? Are those allegations correct?

MR. MCCURRY: Well, in the case of both Turkey and Jordan, we have worked very closely with them -- probably Turkish cooperation on sanctions enforcement is obviously critical to the overall enforcement. And of all the nations bordering Iraq, Turkey has probably enforced sanctions the most effectively, responded to concerns that we've raised. They've also suffered the most from some of the lack of commerce that's involved in the sanctions regime itself. I think in the case of Jordan we've raised that with the King on many occasions, and they do continue to import Iraqi petroleum products. They have traditionally been dependent on Iraqi oil supplies, but they also understand the importance we attach to the Security Council resolution in place. The Security Council itself has taken a special note of the Jordanian situation, so I think some of that is discussed and deliberated within the confines of the Sanctions Committee.

Q: Mike, you made remarks earlier about Boris Yeltsin. Are the concerns that were expressed within the U.S. intelligence and foreign service communities about Yeltsin's mental and physical stability alleviated now?

MR. MCCURRY: That's a question about an intelligence finding or intelligence assessment by the U.S. government, which is not something I stand here and speak through this microphone.

Q: Is the President committed to opposing efforts to repeal affirmative action laws on the federal level, and what is his reaction to the situation in California?

MR. MCCURRY: There is no situation in California at the moment. There's no measure on the ballot. There is a group making some effort to qualify a measure for the ballot, and we'll have to see how that develops. But, in general, I think, various people in the administration have made clear that the philosophical premise that we work from and that the President works from is that past discrimination is something that lingers, still, and there need to be effective tools to remedy past discrimination, to move us towards equal employment opportunity, inclusion, justice. And among those tools that have been available are affirmative action. And how those tools can operate effectively is part of the work that we are doing and will continue to do.

Q: Will the President oppose Republican efforts to give Secretary Christopher what he wants, in terms of consolidation of various agencies?

MR. MCCURRY: Well, I think we made pretty clear in a statement yesterday that we supported work that the Vice President has been doing. He's looked very carefully at that question of consolidation and said there are a lot of efficiencies that can be achieved within the existing structure in the foreign policy community within AID-ACTA and USIA. And we are going to be very insistent, indeed, the Vice President is being very insistent in seeing that those agencies develop economies both in personnel and resources. And we will continue to hold them to a very high standard that we hope the Hill would find satisfactory.

Q: If they go ahead and, against the Vice President's recommendations, make some combinations, would you try to stop that using perhaps all the authority vested in the President without using the "v" word?

MR. MCCURRY: We would need to work very closely with the Hill to make sure that's done in a way that's consistent with our views about best advancing America's diplomatic objectives around the world. It's a little difficult to say, absent a specific set of ideas. Senator Helms has given some indication of what he might do, but we haven't seen the contours of any specific plan. We would want to work with them very carefully and see the degree to which we can keep it within the confines established by the Vice President as part of the National Performance Review.

QQ: The President's been pretty clear about what he would veto in a crime bill, but what would he veto in a national defense bill?

MR. MCCURRY: Well, there are five specific substantive areas that we outlined -- I believe we outlined publicly yesterday.

Q: Right, but what would --

MR. MCCURRY: Which of those might prompt a veto is best for us to keep the Hill guessing upon at this time, in the hopes that in all five areas we might get some accommodation to the point of view of the President and the administration. But by saying that those areas make that bill unacceptable certainly suggests to you that the President feels strongly enough about those provisions that they might begin to enter into that unacceptable category which the veto word comes into play.

Q: Mike, speaking of accommodation, the Republicans want to put limits on the U.S. forces on U.N. missions and the White House says it considers that infringing on the President's authority. But is there some common ground on what the Republicans want?

MR. MCCURRY: There's a lot of common ground. I think what they are -- on the Hill, they're not interested in seeing the United States have to always foot the bill for far-flung missions around the world. Neither do we want to see that. We've been very pointed within the United Nations in one, asking for reduction in our assessed portion of peacekeeping fees, and, two, being very careful about when and how and where we commit U.S. participation to U.N. peacekeeping operations.

We've been very accountable on that and presented, I think, a very smart, sensible approach to the Congress in the course of a presidential review that was done during the course of 1994 and '94. And now, I think it's fair to say, that many of the changes that have taken place as a result of the administration policy are producing exactly the type of limits with a circumscribed approach to peacekeeping that the Congress desires.

What the National Security Revitalization Act does is it literally destroys U.N. peacekeeping. It would leave us in a position where no other country -- every other country would insist upon the same arrangements that the Congress has asking for the United States, which eviscerates U.N. peacekeeping altogether. Now, that's not a good idea if you believe, as this administration believes, that sharing some of the costs of protecting freedom and democracy in this world is a good idea and that we should be able to work with allies and with other countries in the international community to share the burden. That's what this approach is about. Essentially, what the approach defined by the majority in this legislation does is to say either we have to go it alone or we don't go it at all. And that does not make a lot of sense to us.

Q: Mike, going back just a minute to affirmative action, the proponents of this planned initiative in California say they have no problem with the argument you just made that affirmative action may have been justified to readdress cases of past discrimination. Their arguments, though, is we're beyond this and we ought to move toward a color-blind society. My question is, does the President believe that in this year, 1995, the United States is a color-blind society?

MR. MCCURRY: No, it is clear when you look around this country that there remains instances of discrimination. There continue to be cases on a case-by-case basis in which you have to evaluate the effects of discrimination. There are findings in courts that look carefully at individual cases of discrimination. So the notion that we are at a moment when we can declare a color-blind society to have arrived seems very remote.

Q: How will you know when the playing field is leveled? How will you know that that's been achieved?

MR. MCCURRY: By thinking through carefully and by analyzing data, doing it in a way that you would on any serious social policy question. You have to look for facts rather than opinions. Unfortunately, this may be a debate that's defined much more by, you know, hot political rhetoric than by serious sober analysis of where we are in ending all vestiges of discrimination in our society.

Q: What's on the President's schedule tomorrow?

MR. MCCURRY: We'll do schedule at the end.

Q: This weekend Republican presidential candidates will gather in New Hampshire. Does the President have any plans to visit that state in the near future?

MR. MCCURRY: Well, I imagine he'll have to wander up there at some point sooner or later, but no definitive plans at this point to there, but certainly an expectation that the President will look forward to seeing his friends and supporters in New Hampshire at some future date this year.

Q: Mike, now that you have a Political Director, and you have a DNC Chairman, or Chairmen, what about a chairman to head the President's reelection committee? When do you anticipate the President would want to name someone to head his reelection committee?

MR. MCCURRY: Well, we're a long ways away from picking someone to head a committee that has not yet been structured; that's going to be down the road a ways I think.

Q: But timetable-wise, when would you anticipate looking ahead to New Hampshire and all that?

MR. MCCURRY: Well, sometime prior to the New Hampshire primary, now a year away. I don't know, I can't speculate on when, but we'll do it, thinking through the relevant questions about when is it appropriate to do that and when it makes sense from the point of view of the political people around here.

Q: Mike, given that you just said you disagree with the premises of the proposed initiative in California, you disagree with the pieces of the proposed initiative in California, why don't you go ahead and say, when it's there and on the ballot, the President will come out and campaign against the proposed initiative?

MR. MCCURRY: Well, because -- Doyle, correct me, you may know better than I do -- I don't even think that they've locked in the language that they're going to put out for the initiative yet. Have they necessarily? I'm not certain that that has been done yet. So I would -- it's impossible to take a declarative position on a measure that's not yet qualified for the ballot and, as far as I know, is not yet formally drafted and being presented to the voters of California for qualification for the ballot. So it would be best to see what we're talking about before we start taking hard and fast positions.

Q: With affirmative action coming up in the political debate, are you concerned that Reverend Jackson will try to push the President more --

MR. MCCURRY: I wouldn't want to predict how he might address many of these questions.

Q: Mike, where in the rhetoric of the civil rights movement does the President get his sort of philosophy that we are supposed to build this system of percentages and, some would say, quotas by which to measure things, rather than keep walking toward brotherhood?

MR. MCCURRY: You're asking me from whence did come an idea that I'm not sure he embraces. So I'm not sure I can answer that question.

Q: Do schedule when you want. (Laughter.)

MR. MCCURRY: You done? Are we done? Can I turn it over to my capable schedulers?

Q: One more question.

MR. MCCURRY: One more question.

Q: What's the status of the security review of the White House? Secret Service was doing a whole big --

Q: Stump the band. (Laughter.)

MR. MCCURRY: There is -- I'll have to check on it, and I will check on it. I actually had a conversation with someone on it yesterday and forgot to pursue it at greater length. They did give us something on that, I think. Were you trying to get that for your affiliate locally here, by any chance?

Q: No.

MR. MCCURRY: Oh, okay, because they're actually doing -- well, I shouldn't say that.

Q: Thank you for that information. (Laughter.)

THE PRESS: Thank you.

END 1:43 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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