Press Briefing by Scott Stanzel
Dwight D. Eisenhower Executive Office Building
12:38 P.M. EDT
MR. STANZEL: Good afternoon, everybody. Happy July 5th. Hope you all had a wonderful Independence Day. I don't have anything off the top, so I'll take your questions.
Q: The House Judiciary Committee has given the White House until 10:00 a.m. Monday to explain its basis for invoking executive privilege. How is the White House going to respond to that?
MR. STANZEL: Well, we always respond appropriately to the inquiries. I would note that we do get a lot of inquiries from the Hill. They've launched over 300 investigations, had over 350 requests for documents and interviews --
Q: Since January?
MR. STANZEL: Since taking over, yes. And they have had over 600 oversight hearings in just about 100 days -- so that's about six oversight hearings a day. And we've turned over 200,000 pages of documents as an administration. And in that time, what they have to show for it, if you're taking a generous look at it, is six bills -- six major bills passed.
We'll always respond appropriately, and look forward to reviewing that letter, but I guess I would raise those issues because it raises the question, what does Congress want to do -- do they want to pass legislation for the American people or would they rather investigate and have politics be the course of the day?
Q: Does that mean that -- when you say you will respond appropriately, does that mean that you'll meet the 10:00 a.m. deadline?
MR. STANZEL: I haven't seen that letter, so we'll take a look at it and see what they're asking for. And I'm sure the Counsel's Office will have a response in due time.
Q: And by your earlier response, are you suggesting that the Congress is too zealous in its oversight, excessive?
MR. STANZEL: Well, I would say they have a lot to show in terms of activity and requests and letter writing, and that sort of thing, but not much to show in the way of real legislation, whether it's legislation on health care, education, comprehensive immigration reform -- all of those things are important issues that we think the American people care about and would like to see Congress move forward on.
Q: Scott, in the Libby matter, the President and the White House all made a big deal of saying that this is not a slap on the wrist, because Libby is going to pay a fine, and he's also going to be on probation for two years. As you know, the judge in the case is now saying he actually may not have to be on probation because he did not serve any jail time. So doesn't this undermine the President's case that, in fact, this is not a slap on the wrist?
MR. STANZEL: Actually, let me take a minute on that, Ed, and I appreciate you raising that question. There is no dispute on the issue of the two-year period of probation supervised by the office, the probation office. So there is not dispute on that matter from our perspective.
The statute -- it says that a judge, when issuing a sentence, can impose "supervised release" after incarceration. If, when making the initial sentencing decision, the judge chooses not to impose incarceration, he could have the defendant serve under identical conditions of supervision, under the probation statute.
Last month the judge imposed a sentence of imprisonment, and therefore, he termed the subsequent probationary period "supervised release." On June 22nd, he committed Libby to the custody of the Bureau of Prisons to surrender to a facility at a time of their choosing. The commutation of the prison term results in Libby's release from the Bureau of Prison custody, because it substitutes any time left to serve in advance of a supervised release. So by the terms of the commutation, all other elements of the June 22nd sentencing order remain intact.
Therefore, under the judge's June 22nd order, he is required to report to the probation office within 72 hours of the release from custody to serve his period of supervision by the probation office.
Q: Have you read the judge's July 3rd order, though?
MR. STANZEL: Have I read the judge's July 3rd order? No, personally, I have not.
Q: Because the order you're talking about was before the President actually issued the commutation, correct?
MR. STANZEL: This was June 22nd. So --
Q: So he's issued a new one on July 3rd. Have you read that?
MR. STANZEL: I have not.
Q: Okay, it says: "Strictly construed, the statute authorizing the imposition of supervised release indicates that such release should only occur after the defendant has already served a term of imprisonment."
MR. STANZEL: Well --
Q: He didn't serve in any prison time, right?
MR. STANZEL: Correct. But the judge -- it's our view that the judge, the attorneys and the probation office can work out the reporting date, and whether it is technically regarded as probation or supervised release in light of the commutation. So the President has been clear in this. He believes that Mr. Libby should serve two years under probation office supervision, pursuant to the conditions and all other components of the June 22nd order.
Q: But you're saying, technically, it could be probation. The President didn't say any technicalities. The President clearly told the American people at Walter Reed --
MR. STANZEL: He did.
Q: -- this is going to be probation.
MR. STANZEL: Correct.
Q: His judge is saying, hmm, maybe not.
MR. STANZEL: Well, we believe the attorneys and the judge and the probation office can work out those details.
Q: But, work out details -- I mean, the President is making the case it's not a slap on the wrist because there's going to be probation.
MR. STANZEL: Right.
Q: And the judge is saying, no, if you look at the statute, that's not what's going to happen.
MR. STANZEL: Well, it's our view that in the reading of the law and the order on the 22nd, that that is the way it should be.
Q: Is the President aware of this question, this statute, before he signed off on the commutation?
MR. STANZEL: I'm not going to speak to the internal deliberations and discussions that the President may have had on this matter. But he thinks it was the right approach.
Q: But do you think maybe now, in retrospect, it would have been better to go through the Justice Department and have a lawyer there look at this, so that --
MR. STANZEL: I think that this process was dealt with in a very thorough manner. And the issues that have been raised -- that you're raising -- we believe are technical issues. And the President's views are very clear on this: that he should serve those two years of probation under the supervision of that office.
Q: Scott, is Scooter Libby getting more than equal justice under the law? Is he getting special treatment?
MR. STANZEL: Well, I guess I don't know what you mean by "equal justice under the law." But this is a unique case, there's no doubt about that. And we have said that there are a lot of people on all sides of this issue who've made good points. The President took a very measured approach to it. He believed that the jury verdict should be respected and -- but he did feel that the sentence was excessive, in terms of jail time. But this is a unique case, and there's no doubt about that.
Q: So that this case shouldn't be setting any kind of standard for, say, someone who has already asked for commutation of sentence for, like, 33 months in jail for perjury and obstruction of justice, just as Scooter Libby was charged with those?
MR. STANZEL: I think every case is different, and it's important to evaluate every case on its merits.
Q: So he's not trying to set a new standard, and this should not be used as a measurement for any other case that's out there?
MR. STANZEL: I don't -- I'm not a lawyer, so I'm not going to speak to precedent and that sort of thing. But it was the President's view that this was a very unique matter, and he took the action he did based on the facts and based on a considered and deliberate process of considering all the angles to this issue. But every case should be evaluated on its own merits.
Q: How can the White House square this commutation of the sentence of Scooter Libby with the fact that when the President came to Washington, he said that he wanted to change the tone of Washington; he wanted to bring people together. And indeed, this is dividing Washington, D.C. even more, as the President's numbers are even falling even more in the polls. How does he square this with what he said when he first came to Washington?
MR. STANZEL: Well, to be clear, the President did not do this for political reasons. As we've indicated before, if he was doing it for political reasons, there would have been no action. As you all here have cited, polls indicating -- that the American people may not have agreed with lessening a sentence or commuting a sentence or a pardon, for that matter.
So the President took this action based on what he thinks was right and the right thing to do. And Scooter Libby is going to -- has paid a hefty penalty -- $250,000. We discussed the two years probation. He still has the felony count, lose his opportunity to serve as a lawyer in his career, as he did prior to his public service. So it's a unique case; there's no doubt about that.
Q: Follow-up. How can -- how can you explain the President's feelings right now? Talking to many people who are very close to him, they keep saying that the President did not want to overturn a jury's decision, but he made this decision, and then he's also leaving the door open for a pardon. How -- could you tell us how he came to -- because that's a very -- that's very conflicted.
MR. STANZEL: Well, he thinks that the rule of law and the process for a jury deliberation is an important one to respect. He respects the jury's verdict in this case. He disagreed with the sentencing, he found it to be excessive.
As you know, the President has used his commutation powers and his pardoning powers that are granted to him by the Constitution very sparingly, and more sparingly than previous administrations. So the President believes that he took the right approach on this. He understands that he'll get political heat from people all across the spectrum, but he did what he believed was the right thing to do.
Q: Scott, what do you say to Democratic critics who say that the commutation of Libby's sentence was intended to mollify conservatives, his own Republicans included, who were beginning to break with him on issues ranging from immigration to Iraq?
MR. STANZEL: Well, if that was what we were responding to, then a full pardon would have been the answer of the day, because that's what many people -- many conservatives were asking for. And that is what the President did not do. He respected the jury verdict. There's still the hefty fine and the probation. And it's interesting to me -- there's much hypocrisy in Washington, D.C., but it seems to me that the hypocrisy demonstrated by Democratic leaders on this issue is rather startling. When you think about the previous administration and the 11th hour fire sale pardons, and issues that were provided commutations on the last day in the numbers of the hundreds, in the final time between the post-election period, it's really startling that they have the gall to criticize what we believe is a very considered, a very deliberate approach to a very unique case.
Q: So you're accusing Bill and Hillary Clinton of hypocrisy?
MR. STANZEL: I would say that it is amazing to me that they can -- with what they did on January 20, 2001, they can criticize the President for issuing a commutation -- his fourth -- insomuch as they issued -- President Clinton issued 141 pardons on January 20th; over 200 in the period -- in the post-election period in 2000. It sort of pales in comparison.
Q: What does that have to do with this, though? The circumstances of this case seem to be very different. Those pardons and commutations were all, as far as I know, processed through the usual channels, where --
MR. STANZEL: Do you know that?
Q: We believe that that's the case; the attorneys applied for them --
MR. STANZEL: I don't know that that's the case.
Q: -- they went through the Justice Department review.
MR. STANZEL: I don't know that that's the case.
Q: It is, certainly, in most of them, as far as we're aware. We haven't heard of others that aren't.
MR. STANZEL: Well, those are all questions -- legitimate questions to be asked.
Q: So this case was special because this was someone who worked for the White House, who knew the President, and who seems to be getting special treatment. There are at least 3,000 other cases out there of people who feel that their sentences were far too long, and wish that they could have had theirs commuted, as well.
MR. STANZEL: Well, certainly there's an argument to be made that there was special treatment in those 141 pardons issued on January 20, 2001 -- Mark Rich, Susan McDougal, a Clinton brother, you know.
Q: Yes, but what's that have to do with this?
MR. STANZEL: It's interesting to me that they would bring up those attacks in this day and try to score a political point. They can disagree with the action the President took, but to use some of the language that they've used is really remarkable.
Q: So you're saying you're not going to have a final day pardon of Scooter Libby? Let's get that on the record: Is that what you're saying?
MR. STANZEL: The President is on the record on that, and he's not ruling anything in or out.
Q: How are you going to accuse them of walking out the door with a fire sale, and then you're leaving the door open for a last day pardon --
MR. STANZEL: It's purely hypothetical, but I was asked to respond to things that Democratic leaders were saying today, and what they're saying today is truly remarkable, when you think about what they did on the last day in office. But the President thinks that he took the right approach on this issue.
Q: Can you talk about the poll numbers? The numbers are dropping. Do you think that has anything to do with what you said, hypocrisy from the other side? People are -- the question I asked before, it's gone against what the President said. The numbers are now -- they dropped from 29 to 26 percent. Can you talk about the President's poll numbers right now?
MR. STANZEL: Well, clearly, as I've indicated, the President doesn't lead based on poll numbers. People are frustrated with what's going on in Washington, but I think a lot of that has to do with people's concerns about the Iraq war -- the President is concerned about the Iraq war. You've heard him say before, if a pollster called him and said, do you support what's going on, or are you disappointed with what's going on, are you in favor of what's going on, no, the President wants it to be better. That's why we instituted the Baghdad security plan.
In terms of Congress and their remarkably low poll numbers, historically low poll numbers, we think that a lot of the reason for that is people don't see that Congress is addressing the real issues of the day. They're more interested in investigations; they're more interested in political mud fights than they are in actually getting real legislation passed.
Q: Does the President hold the view that former President Bill Clinton is being unfair to him with his criticism?
MR. STANZEL: I haven't talked to the President about that. It was my observation that it's a remarkable attack to make, given the situation that they were in.
Q: How did you begin with saying there is no dispute, when, in fact, the judge, the sentencing judge, an appointee of this President, does believe there's a dispute on how to proceed with probation? How can the White House determine there is no dispute?
MR. STANZEL: I don't believe there's a dispute on the interests in having a two-year probationary period of supervised probation by that office. That's what I meant by there's no dispute.
Q: But didn't the President's commutation override that? That's what the judge is saying.
MR. STANZEL: It's our view that it didn't. It's our view that it didn't.
Q: Scott, why, if the President thought the sentence was excessive, why didn't he simply reduce it? Why do away with the entire sentence?
MR. STANZEL: Well, I think the President thought that the penalty -- the fine, the probation, the felony charge -- were all very significant penalties. And so that's why -- I'm not going to get into a gaming out of whether zero to 30 and somewhere in there was -- is the right place, but the President thought that the fine was excessive -- or the jail time was excessive, and that's why he commuted the sentence.
Q: Even one day would have been considered excessive?
MR. STANZEL: The President commuted the entire sentence.
Q: So a single day in jail for lying and obstructing justice, in a federal case, is excessive?
MR. STANZEL: The President believed that 30 months, the sentence that was given -- one day wasn't given, 30 months was.
Q: Right, but it's not the 30 months that he thought was excessive, it was the entire sentence.
MR. STANZEL: It was the --
Q: -- any time in jail.
MR. STANZEL: He commuted the 30-month sentence. So what the President believed was 30 months was excessive, and he respected the jury verdict, and the jury verdict also put in place -- found Mr. Libby guilty of perjury and obstruction of justice, which are serious charges, and those are addressed by the $250,000 fine and the probation and the felony charge.
Q: Can you tell us if reducing the sentence was even considered?
MR. STANZEL: I'm not going to even speculate about internal deliberations. So the President made very clear his views in the two-page statement and in his comments the next day.
Q: One other on this. Has he spoken, has the President spoken to Scooter Libby about this?
MR. STANZEL: No, he has not.
Q: Scott, has --
MR. STANZEL: Yes, go ahead.
Q: I have three British questions, if I may.
Q: Could we stay on this topic?
MR. STANZEL: Okay.
Q: Scott, did the President bypass the normal channels in the Department of Justice to maintain secrecy about his deliberations and his process with respect to Scooter Libby?
MR. STANZEL: No, the President took a very deliberate approach to this issue. I'm not going to discuss all the deliberations that he had. We have indicated that he did not speak with the Department of Justice, but he took a very measured approach, because the facts of this case were very evident, they were very clear. And he does not -- the authorities of commutation and pardoning are granted to him by the Constitution, and so he does not have to answer to a subordinate office on that.
Q: Why didn't he seek Justice Department comment?
MR. STANZEL: Because he felt that he was certainly capable, with his staff, in making this decision.
Q: May I change the subject?
MR. STANZEL: Any others? April.
Q: Has Scooter Libby's lawyers contacted the White House about possible appealing to the Supreme Court the conviction, or a pardon? Has he made anyone here aware of next steps?
MR. STANZEL: Not that I'm aware of, but you should check with Scooter Libby's lawyers about their actions. I'm not aware of any.
Q: Scott, some of his fellow Republicans have criticized the President for commuting Libby's sentence, but not commuting the sentences of those El Paso border agents, Compean and Ramos. Is there any concern in the White House this is going to heighten that criticism and add fuel to the fire?
MR. STANZEL: We've seen that criticism before and we've addressed that matter many times before. I think it's important, as I've indicated -- each case is different. It's important to look at the facts of every case, look at the facts of that issue. So I don't think that there's a concern that we're going to get more or less political heat because the President took this action. But it's important to evaluate every case on its merits.
Q: Scott, one more. You're bringing up the Clintons. Isn't that like saying two wrongs make a right?
MR. STANZEL: I'm not saying that at all. But I am saying that you should pay attention to the ground you stand on when you're launching attacks.
Q: Because you're saying that they were worse, so if you're upset about this --
MR. STANZEL: I'm saying that they -- the previous President used his pardoning and commutation powers far more than this President. There were many controversial issues that they dealt with --
Q: As did the President's father.
MR. STANZEL: Correct. There were many issues that they dealt with. And I'm just saying that to try to make a political point based on this one issue that we feel is a very deliberate approach, that respects the rule of law, is remarkable.
Q: But because of those Clinton pardons, there were actually safeguards that were added. And when you talk to former pardon attorneys, they say because of what happened with Mark Rich and others, Congress looked at -- and others -- and they put in new safeguards. But then, by not going to the Justice Department, the President went around those safeguards. So how can you -- aren't you having it both ways by saying, well, the Clintons did a really bad job of this, but then you ignored some of the reforms that were made after the Clinton pardons --
MR. STANZEL: The President's powers come from the Constitution. And that's what the President answers to.
Q: I've got three British, Middle East-type questions. The first one -- has President Bush personally been in touch with Prime Minister Gordon Brown on the terrorism of the past week?
MR. STANZEL: Not that I'm aware of. But, certainly, U.S. officials have been in regular contact with their counterparts in the U.K., so those conversations are frequent and very involved and regular.
Q: Can the U.S. consider Great Britain a full ally when Prime Minister Brown has said that the war on terror is a phrase that won't be used anymore?
MR. STANZEL: We absolutely consider the U.K. a very valued partner and a full ally.
Q: And third, has the U.S. attitude toward Hamas changed in any way in light of the release of Alan Johnston?
MR. STANZEL: You know, we were pleased by the safe release of Mr. Johnston. It was a great relief, of course, to his family and friends. And we would also note that there's another hostage in Gaza, and that's Israeli Corporal Shalit, and we hope that they would release him, as well. But that does not change our attitude.
Q: Scott, there's a new terror tape from Ayman al- Zawahiri. It seems be calling followers to join the jihad in Iraq. Do you have any reaction to the new terror tape?
MR. STANZEL: You know, I would say that the new terror tape is a reminder that we face a very determined enemy, one who wants to kill wantonly, wants to kill to spread their view of the world. They're a dangerous enemy. And the President has made clear that we must stay on the offense, so we are not fighting these terrorists in places like Boston; rather we are fighting them in Baghdad.
So it's just yet another reminder of their determination. They see Iraq as a central front in the war on terror. They would see precipitous withdrawal by the United States as a victory for them. The President made comments yesterday, believes it's very important that we stay on the offense against these people who clearly have shown their desire to kill innocent civilians in order to stop peace and democracy.
Q: Does the White House view Zawahiri and bin Laden as becoming increasingly irrelevant, occasionally releasing a tape, in Zawahiri's case, when there are cells apparently operating in places like Glasgow and London, perhaps on their own?
MR. STANZEL: I don't know that I would make that specific judgment. I think that certainly we are hunting down all the top leaders of al Qaeda. We understand, however, that there are cells throughout the world, so this fight goes on not only in Iraq and Afghanistan, but it goes on in other places. And unfortunately, the actions of some in the U.K. remind us that this issue can come to our shores, as well.
Q: Scott, can I ask you about a Russia-related issue. President Putin, upon leaving Kennebunkport, went directly to Guatemala and helped his country win an Olympic bid. I can tell you my country is ecstatic about it. Is there anything the White House might say to the Russian leader and the Russian nation on that victory?
MR. STANZEL: Sure. We congratulate Russia on its successful bid to host the Olympics in Sochi in 2014. The Olympics, as you know, are a great way to -- for countries to come together and celebrate athletic achievement. So we congratulate them on their --
Q: Did the two Presidents, to the best of your knowledge, discuss the issue at Kennebunkport?
MR. STANZEL: Not that I'm aware of. Stephen Hadley had given a pretty full readout of their discussions, and he did not mention that. So I'm not aware that that came up.
Q: And lastly, the Chinese recently invited the President to their own Olympics in 2008. Do you know if that's under consideration?
MR. STANZEL: I'm aware of that invitation, but we don't have any updates to the President's schedule at this time.
Q: Scott, can you update us on gifts that may have been given to the President for his birthday?
MR. STANZEL: I didn't -- I didn't check on that. I know that the President had a wonderful evening with family and friends. He was joined by his father and his mother and the daughters and a number of good friends. But I don't know. You might check with the First Lady's office on that.
Q: Thank you.
MR. STANZEL: Thank you.
END 1:03 P.M. EDT
George W. Bush, Press Briefing by Scott Stanzel Online by Gerhard Peters and John T. Woolley, The American Presidency Project https://www.presidency.ucsb.edu/node/275884