Press Briefing by Tony Fratto
James S. Brady Press Briefing Room
12:34 P.M. EST
MR. FRATTO: Hello, everyone. I don't have anything for you. I can go straight to questions.
Q: How married is the President to keeping his tax cuts permanent when he is working out a deal with Congress, an economic stimulus deal?
MR. FRATTO: Well, I was -- take this in a couple pieces. First of all, with respect to permanence of the tax cuts, that's something we're absolutely committed to as a long-term economic growth policy; it has been for a long time, since we passed the tax cuts, I think we've wanted to make them permanent.
With respect to the President's consultations with members of Congress, the President wants to listen to them. He wants to hear what they have to say, how they see the economic landscape, what their views are.
Q: Is he going to insist that that's part of the deal?
MR. FRATTO: When the President has something to announce, we'll announce it, and we'll see where that goes. But he certainly wants to listen to the leaders first.
Q: Sounds like he's going to have something soon, doesn't it?
MR. FRATTO: I think we're getting closer. I wouldn't put a time frame on it.
Q: Tony, the folks on the Hill, the Democrats on the Hill are saying that it needs to be passed and signed into law by mid-February. Can a stimulus package by the White House wait until the State of the Union to accomplish that kind of goal, and get the short-term effect that you seem to be indicating the economy needs?
MR. FRATTO: Well, we certainly do want to see a short-term effect. We're dealing with short-term concerns with the economy. The head winds that we're dealing with right now are things that we see over the next coming quarters. So we do want to try to pass something quickly.
I see no obstacle to that. It seems to me that both sides of the aisle and both Houses of Congress want to try to get to an agreement. I think the conversation that the President will be having in about an hour with leaders -- we'll get a better sense of what their thinking is, and he'll hear from them directly, and they'll hear from him directly on this subject.
Q: On that point, so even the commitment on the part of the President to making the tax cuts permanent, that goal you don't see as an obstacle to getting a stimulus package by the middle of February?
MR. FRATTO: Well, I'm not going to talk about what the components of an economic stimulus package might be. There are lots of ways to do that, lots of people both inside and outside of government have come forward with ideas. We have ideas, and they've been reviewed with the President. But with respect to the question of the permanence of the tax cuts, we do want to see that. Whether it's part of a specific plan or not, we'll have to see, but it's certainly a goal that we want to accomplish, and to put this economy in the best position going forward.
Q: The President isn't insistent at this moment that that's part of the stimulus --
MR. FRATTO: The President still has decisions to make on what he would like to see in it, so I can't characterize what would or would not be in that package; I'm not in a position to do that. And I'm not going to get in the business of giving thumbs-up or thumbs-down on to all the individual ideas that are out there.
MR. FRATTO: I'm sorry?
Q: That is a good business. (Laughter.)
MR. FRATTO: It is a very good business. I know people who make pretty good change doing that.
Q: Can I just ask one follow up?
MR. FRATTO: Certainly.
Q: Back in August --
Q: Always possible --
Q: Back in August the President described the housing crisis as headed for a soft landing. Would he describe it differently now?
MR. FRATTO: I think what we are -- I don't know if that's the way that we would describe it today. I think knowing the way the housing sector is dealing with this transition -- we know a little bit more now than we knew three months ago and six months ago; I don't think that's a surprise.
I think in terms of a soft landing, it's a -- we could try to ascribe adjectives to how it's going to play out. There are certain things that we know: that it is going to take some time to work through it; there's a fairly large overhang in the market of the basic supply and demand problem of too many homes and not enough people to buy them. And that's going to take time to work out. And then you also have the associated problems in the credit markets.
Now we've put a program forth, the President did, back on August 31st, that addresses a number of the issues associated with the problems we're seeing in the housing market. One part of that was the FHA modernization bill that we want to see Congress pass. And we'd like them to see it soon.
Q: (Inaudible) wouldn't be on board with a stimulus plan. The housing market -- people who are foreclosing on mortgages need a lot more than that kind of --
MR. FRATTO: Well, I think you need to separate them a little bit. You do have a specific problem in the housing market, which we're trying to address. It is having some resonating problems in the broader economy, and you want to think about the broader economy, and you want to think of solutions, in terms of the broader economy, also. You want broad-based solutions that address the needs of the whole economy.
It was an interesting story today -- we all talk about the economy and what the economy, and where -- with the slowing down, it is a varied economy. I was asked at the gaggle this morning about -- talking about mixed data; the data are mixed. There was a story today in The Washington Post -- I know you all don't like if I single out a particularly good article, it's probably not the best badge of honor for a reporter to have someone like me like your reporting -- (laughter) -- but it was a good review of the way this economy is varied both regionally and sectorally and demographically. It is a mixed picture. So you want to think about the whole -- the needs of the whole nation.
Q: Did something specifically that the President has seen in the last few days push him over the edge into the, yes, the U.S. economy needs a stimulus package?
MR. FRATTO: No, I think it was more of an aggregate look at the economic data that we've seen over the past weeks and months, and the best advice and counsel that he's gotten from people like Hank Paulson and Ed Lazear and Keith Hennessey, and putting that all together. So I can't think of any one sort of trigger element that might have led to it.
Q: If you -- if rebate checks wound up being a part of the package, do you know how long it might take to get the checks out, actually in the hands of the people?
MR. FRATTO: I think that's -- I can speak to history on this, when we did it in -- back in 2001, and it took a little bit of time for the IRS to be able to do that, although they -- in 2001, when we did the rebate checks -- I think probably one of the most timely fiscal stimulus efforts maybe in history; it hit at a very appropriate time, it had a beneficial impact on the economy. But that's a question for -- if anything like that is part of a proposal, that we would -- the IRS would have to answer that question.
Q: Tony, will there be a readout this afternoon sometime after the conference call?
MR. FRATTO: I'm looking into that. We'll see.
Q: Please let us know on that. And also, will the stimulus package be announced tomorrow?
MR. FRATTO: I'm not in a position to talk about when the President's decision-making will take place.
Q: And would you separate it from the State of the Union? Would it come out separately from the State of the Union?
MR. FRATTO: You know what, I don't think it's -- I don't think I'm in a position to talk about the timing of it.
Q: How long is the conversation going to be today, approximately?
MR. FRATTO: You know, we'll see. He has a little bit of time on his schedule. I don't know.
Q: Okay, does the President believe that a stimulus should be offset?
MR. FRATTO: No.
Q: He thinks it should not be offset?
MR. FRATTO: No. Well, if you think about the stimulus, the idea is to put money into the economy, not take money out of the economy. If you take money out of the economy, it's contractionary, and that's not something we would want to do.
Q: Just one more. You're not willing to be specific, but are there any more broad -- you said that the measures have to be broad-based throughout the economy. Any other general criteria that he's using? Do they have to be immediately stimulative, or could it be a longer-term measure? Are there any other general criteria that you're using for things that might be included in this?
MR. FRATTO: Well, obviously when I think of the -- you want to think of the relative short term. And I think the President has said this before, you want to be able to do something fairly quickly. I know Hank Paulson has spoken to this, the need to be able to get legislation passed quickly and to have the impact felt relatively quickly, as well.
Q: One more question. Is spending on the docket perhaps --
MR. FRATTO: I'm not going to get into considering various ideas.
Q: Quick, two questions. One, a congressman was charged, including with Islamic charity aiding and abetting and also raising funds for them, which funds were going for the terrorist forces against the United States and around the globe. Any comments, if the President knows about this, that even a congressman was involved?
MR. FRATTO: I'm not aware if the President has seen that reporting or not. I don't have a reaction on it. I would have to refer you to DOJ on that.
Q: And second, as far as dealing with global war on terrorism, President has been talking very tough last week, including on his trip in the Middle East. General Musharraf has said that even there are terrorists in the no-man-land, or along the border with Afghanistan, inside Pakistan, including Osama bin Laden, he will not allow -- or he had a warning for the U.S. to enter the area, he would -- even like CIA or some (inaudible) said that they might, to enter the area, to get or flush out the terrorists.
MR. FRATTO: I think I'm going to refer that to DOD, I don't like to get into operational questions.
Q: Thank you, Tony. Two questions. The top of page one of The Washington Post reported from Jerusalem the President saying that Palestinian refugees in 1948 should receive compensation for loss of homes, when they fled or were forced to flee during the establishment of the state of the Israel. And my question: Is there any record of anyone asking the President about the 870,000 Jews who at that time were forcibly expelled from their homes in 10 Arab countries and have never been compensated for the lost property?
MR. FRATTO: I'm not aware of the President having been asked that question.
Q: And do you have an answer to it, since I'm raising it?
MR. FRATTO: I'm not aware of the -- you asked if I knew if the President has been asked, and I told you I'm not aware that he has or hasn't.
Q: Nobody's asked. All right.
MR. FRATTO: Not that I'm aware of.
Q: Second question: Since the President on January the 14th, Religious Freedom Day, declared "My administration continues to support freedom worship at home and abroad," the President therefore supports Virginia's Attorney General McDonnell who has declared as a matter of federal constitutional law, the Episcopal Church is simply wrong; the Constitution does not require that local church property disputes be resolved by deferring to national and regional church leaders. The President supports the Attorney General, doesn't he?
MR. FRATTO: I'm not sure that the President has a opinion on the Episcopalian conflict, on this question.
Q: Tony, on the subject, could you address the missing White House emails and the law suit? It is a subject of reports this morning. Are there in fact the emails missing? What's the likelihood of their recovery versus the --
MR. FRATTO: I think our review of this, and you saw the court filing on this, and our declaration in response to the judge's questions -- I think to the best of what all the analysis we've been able to do, we have absolutely no reason to believe that any emails are missing; there's no evidence of that. There's no -- we tried to reconstruct some of the work that went into a chart that was entered into court records and could not replicate that or could not authenticate the correctness of the data in that chart. And from everything that we can tell, our analysis of our backup systems, we have no reason to believe that any email at all are missing.
Q: So where are they?
MR. FRATTO: Where are what?
Q: Where are part of --
MR. FRATTO: Which email? Look, no one will tell you categorically about any system -- any system, whether it's your system at Bloomberg or our system here at the White House, past and present, categorically that data cannot be missing. All of our review of it and all of the our understanding of the way that the backup system works, it's a backup system that captures existing data, it captures things that are stored and archived. We have no reason to believe that there's any data missing at all -- and we've certainly found no evidence of any data missing.
Q: So that would mean that if you were asked, you would be in a position to comply with a request to produce those documents?
MR. FRATTO: Yes, which documents? I mean, if someone has a specific request for documents and they would like us to search for particular emails, of course we could search for emails -- and we have. And we have been responsive to requests in the past.
Q: And they have been produced? They do exist?
MR. FRATTO: We have produced emails upon request, either for our own internal review or sometimes in response to investigations that have taken place on the Hill. I mean, we have been able to go back and find email. The question is, have we been able to find a large mass of missing email? No, we have not located somewhere in the system the absence of something. We have not been able to note the absence of anything in our databases.*
Q: You're saying they're there, you just haven't located them yet?
MR. FRATTO: No, I'm saying we have no evidence that shows that anything at all is missing. And you're saying, well, have you found the missing emails -- and we say we have no evidence that anything is missing.
Q: So you're saying that would include emails that were erased from the Republican National Committee system that was used by some White House officials?
MR. FRATTO: I can't speak to the RNC's system of archiving and storing email. All I can tell you is that the email on the White House computers, we have no reason to believe that any email or other data are missing.
Q: Yes, I want to follow up on that, I've taken a real sky view of this particular story, but -- so it was wrong to say a few months ago that there were possibly millions of emails missing?
MR. FRATTO: I think those charges came from outside the White House. I think that's the charge of one of the --
Q: One of your colleagues addressed those from the podium and suggested that that was accurate -- again, I'm taking --
MR. FRATTO: I'm not sure what was said on that. I can tell you today, though, that we have no evidence and we have no way of showing that any email at all are missing.
Q: Okay. Over the past couple weeks various Iraqi -- senior Iraqi officials have been saying, debating about different kinds of dates for when the Iraqi security forces will be self sufficient. We've had 2009, we have 2012 for internal security, and 2018 for securing the borders. Has there been any kind of an official notification from Iraq to U.S. officials about what date is the right one, given the variation in the public ones?
MR. FRATTO: No, and I saw those comments from the Iraqi defense minister also. But, look, obviously, as we announced last month, I believe, we're at the beginning of the discussions of a long-term -- of the principles that would be involved in a long-term agreement with the Iraqis. I think we should allow our people to have those conversations. They affect our -- the security operations and economic and diplomatic relationship with Iraq. We're going to have those conversations, and we'll see how they play out. It would be -- it's premature to talk about what the nature of that arrangement would be at this time until we've had those discussions with the Iraqis.
Q: I understand that, but we're also talking about an ongoing United States troop withdrawal from Iraq. Secretary Gates came out and talked about that again today, or yesterday, saying that he saw no reason why it couldn't continue. I don't understand how 2009, 2012, 2018 -- I don't understand how these variations don't have an impact on the course of U.S. policy over the next couple of years.
MR. FRATTO: Well, I think they do have an impact, and I think our military analysts, and the State Department, Secretary Rice, and the President assess our relationship with Iraq; and it does have an impact on what our long-term relationship will be with the country. The questions of what the needs of that long-term relationship will be beyond the next 12 to 18 months, or two years, are going to be part of a discussion, and we should let that discussion happen.
Q: Back on stimulus, are you saying that all the elements of a stimulus package are likely to be broad-based and sort of economy-wide, or could there be some sector-specific items, and could there be a housing item or two in it?
MR. FRATTO: You know what, I'm -- well, we have lots of housing items out there already; some we've been able to do on our own, and some administratively, and some that we'd still like to see Congress do. But I'm not going to rule things in or out. There are virtues to broad-based solutions, and we like that.
Q: Does the White House agree with the Iraqi Defense Minister's statement that Iraq may not be able to handle its domestic security until 2012?
MR. FRATTO: Do we agree with it? The Iraqi Defense Minister made that comment. I'm not going to comment on whether it squares with our internal thinking or not. I agree that he made that statement. (Laughter.)
Q: Okay, well, a year ago, the President said Iraq has a plan to take over security by last November. Now Iraq says maybe 2012. So in the interim between those two statements, there was this successful surge. So did the surge set back Iraq's plan by five years?
MR. FRATTO: No -- I don't want to make estimates that would seem to accelerate or decelerate. I think we -- I think what we would like to say is that we would like to get through this period of bringing security to Iraq, allow them to make the political and economic reconstruction changes that they need to do. So just noting, we've got some good news out of reporting out of the IMF recently, and their expectations for Iraqi growth over the next year, growing as much as much as 7 percent, and that's good for the Iraq economy.
We want to see continued progress there, and all of these things will have an impact as to what our -- what the nature of our relationship is with Iraq. But we want to have a long-term commitment to Iraq, as they're a strategic partner in this region and they're very important, and we have invested a great deal there. But I'm not going to try to play games with timetables and expectations on that.
Q: On Sudan. The President this morning seemed to express some displeasure with the U.N. process of getting a peacekeeping force in there, and he said he wanted to accelerate U.S. efforts. How does he envision doing that?
MR. FRATTO: Well, I think that's something that we'd like to see Ambassador Williamson work on in his conversations with the parties. Certainly, he'll be diving into North-South discussions in Sudan very quickly. He'll be talking to individuals on the Hill, and so we want him to have those conversations and see what he can come back to us with. With respect to the peacekeeping force, we want to see people -- we want to see countries meet their commitments to deliver troops and to deliver the funding that's necessary to get those troops on the ground, and we want to see greater cooperation on the part of the government of Sudan to let those forces in.
Q: Thank you, Tony.
END 12:55 P.M. EST
*As has previously been stated in the Declaration filed with the court on January 15, 2008, "a chart was created by a former employee within OA that purports to identify certain dates and EOP components for which the chart's creator appears to have concluded that certain EOP components were missing emails on certain dates in the 2003-2005 period." However, as we have also previously said, the Office of the Chief Information Officer (OCIO) "has reviewed the chart and has so far been unable to replicate its results or to affirm the correctness of the assumptions underlying it. Accordingly, th[e] [OCIO] has serious reservations about the reliability of the chart," which is why there is currently an independent effort to examine this issue further.
George W. Bush, Press Briefing by Tony Fratto Online by Gerhard Peters and John T. Woolley, The American Presidency Project https://www.presidency.ucsb.edu/node/277090