Press Briefing by Tony Fratto
James S. Brady Press Briefing Room
1:35 P.M. EDT
MR. FRATTO: Sorry to make you wait on this beautiful Friday afternoon. The reason for waiting is because we were going to get this picture up here. Let's see. Now? Now? One more. "I'm going to get Pete Seat." (Laughter.) Well, technical difficulties in the White House Press Briefing Room. We'll see if we can get it working -- there we go, all right. (Applause.)
This is a picture of the President who -- on March 17th, the President taped a surprise "good luck" video for one of our soldiers in Iraq, who is back here and a contestant on the NBC game show "Deal or No Deal" -- Captain Joe Kobes. The show's producers contacted the White House after learning from Captain Kobes that the President is one of his heroes. Captain Kobes is an Army transportation officer who has served three tours of duty in Iraq, one from March 2004 to March 2005, and then two back-to-back deployments which stretched from November 2006 to July 2007. He received a Purple Heart for injuries sustained after his truck was blown up in 2004. He volunteered for the last two deployments and has just re-signed with the Army for three more years. Captain Kobes is 29 years old.
The show will air on Monday, April 21st. The President thanked him for his service to his country and for serving in Iraq and wished him good luck. And you'll have to watch the show to see how Captain Kobes did.
Q: Do you know how he did?
MR. FRATTO: I don't, no. One of the reasons we're showing it is NBC will be previewing the clip over the weekend with the President, so you'll be able to see the clip. And it really is actually an emotional moment for Captain Kobes and the family. So we look forward to that -- and we all wish him well, as well.
Q: How do you spell?
MR. FRATTO: K-o-b-e-s, Joseph.
Q: Do you know where he's from?
MR. FRATTO: You know what, I don't have it here. I think I had something on that, but I don't have it on my note -- if we can find out, we'll get it. We'll try to get those facts out for you.*
Two other things that I wanted to mention at the gaggle this morning and didn't get to -- you might have seen early this morning U.S. Trade Representative Susan Schwab announced the reopening of -- an agreement to reopen the beef market in Korea -- obviously timely with President Lee's visit with President Bush today up at Camp David.
Q: It's what's for dinner tonight.
MR. FRATTO: I hope it is beef that's for dinner tonight. This agreement includes all beef products, from cattle, all ages. It will ensure safe, portable, high-quality American beef on the table of Koreans, as had been previously the case. Korea before -- Korea had banned American beef and -- in response to Mad Cow -- some Mad Cow disease issues, and we have been trying to work out our arrangement on beef for some time. This is a major sticking point in Congress's consideration of a South Korea trade agreement. Before they had done this Korea was America's third largest export destination for beef. So it is a major agreement and very important to our ranchers.
The other announcement was Department of Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff announced that he and the Korean Minister of Foreign Affairs signed a memorandum of understanding regarding the visa waiver program. They employ some additional security enhancements in the agreement, and it puts Korea on a path towards visa-free travel to the U.S., and potential designation as a visa-waiver program member as early as later this year.
So these are two important agreements with a critical ally of the United States and a partner in anti-terrorism efforts, an important trading partner, an important partner in the six-party talks to denuclearize the Korean Peninsula.
And with that, I'll take your questions. Yes, Wendell.
Q: Two; one on the Korea beef waiver. Does that phase in beef of different ages? I mean, the agreement itself may cover beef of all ages, but do I understand that at least initially there's only younger beef taken and then at some point --
MR. FRATTO: At this point, it is only younger beef, beef of 30 months or less. There had previously been some agreements on boneless beef, but this will be expanded to include all beef and all beef products. Still younger beef at this point, but with a plan to get to all beef products.
Q: And on the Colombia free trade agreement, you guys have often said that Colombia products already come in, 90 percent of them duty-free because of the Andean free trade agreement. So I wonder why this is such a big deal for Colombia if virtually all their products enter the U.S. duty-free anyway.
MR. FRATTO: Well, it's interesting -- I was thinking about that question when -- a similar question was asked of Dana the other day at the briefing, and that is there is this -- there's implied in the question that you only benefit from exports and you don't benefit from imports. And the truth is, is that every country in a trade relationship benefits both from exports and imports. The benefit you get from imports is the ability to buy the best products at the least cost price, wherever it's produced in the world. And that's a benefit to consumers. Some of those products are products that you lack in your own economy. And in the case of a country like Colombia, it might be financial services or legal services, or manufacturing products that we make here that, today, their consumers must pay more to get the higher-quality American products in those areas.
So you have to remember that two-way trade is important; it's a benefit to both countries. You don't benefit just from exports. I know we talk a lot about the importance and strength of exports to our economy, but imports are important also.
Q: Even with the beef deal there still seems to be some reticence up on the Hill to the South Korean free trade agreement. So what are the plans to try and overcome that?
MR. FRATTO: I think it's -- look, I think it's probably too early to say that. I think a lot of the members up there who follow trade understand how important this agreement is. It is with one of our largest trading partners. And they also understand the importance of our relationship from a diplomatic and security standpoint with South Korea.
Trade agreements are never easy; they're always hard. I think some people think back to sometime in the past when getting a trade agreement was easy, and none of them have ever been easy. And I remember in the '90s, the Vice President of the United States having to go on national television and debate Ross Perot over a trade agreement. These things are always difficult, and the best we can do is to continue to educate people about the benefits of the agreements and benefits for trade.
The Colombia deal, as far as we're concerned, ought to be a slam-dunk. From an economic standpoint, a lot of the benefits are on our side, and from a security standpoint, they absolutely are also. And the South Korea deal, as well. We also have Panama, which also is an important deal we're going to continue to work with, and continue to work with Congress to try to get those deals before them.
Did you have a follow, Toby?
Q: Yes. So given the fact that this deal on the beef has been completed, does that mean that the talks up on Camp David are going to focus mostly on the North Korean nuclear issue?
MR. FRATTO: It will run the gamut. I mean, they're certainly going to talk about trade. You can expect them to talk about North Korea and the six-party talks and what progress they're seeing there. But, yes, you can expect all of that.
Q: Tony, a GAO report released on Capitol Hill yesterday concluded that the U.S. doesn't have a comprehensive plan to take on al Qaeda in Pakistan's tribal area. We know that because its title is, "Combating Terrorism: The United States Lacks A Comprehensive Plan to Destroy the Terrorist Threat and Close Safe Havens in Pakistan's Federally Administered Tribal Area." That was called for in the 9/11 Commission and mandated by Congress. Can you tell us what the status is?
MR. FRATTO: I know that DOD has talked about this a little bit. There's no question there's more to be done in that region. I think everyone who has spoken to that issue of the borders has talked about what a difficult challenge it is, and we have more work to do there and we need to do it.
Q: Is there going to be some formal plan proposed for that?
MR. FRATTO: I'm not aware of that. I would refer you to DOD and see if there's more on that.
Q: The South Korea free trade agreement, is that deal ready for submission to Congress? Or how is that going to work?
MR. FRATTO: I don't know if that has -- is ready. We did close the agreement last year, so it should be ready. You may remember, as we talked about Colombia we spent a lot of time talking with Congress of how and when to deliver it. USTR will be having similar conversations with --
Q: Okay, do those talks first before any --
MR. FRATTO: They won't be starting talks; talks have been ongoing for a long time. They'll continue and we'll see if we can bring it up in an accommodative way.
Q: Is it the intent to submit to Congress this year?
MR. FRATTO: Oh, yes, I think we'd like to have all of our trade agreements submitted.
Q: Panama, as well?
MR. FRATTO: Yes.
Q: Back to Korea and the nuclear issue. As I'm sure you're aware, a lot of conservatives are really upset with the acknowledgment that the United States is willing to look at proliferation issues, and instead of getting a declaration from the North Koreans, get an acknowledgment of America's concerns. They say you're lowering the bar. Are you?
MR. FRATTO: No, I don't think there's any lowering the bar. Secretary Rice spoke about this a great deal yesterday. There will be an accounting and there will be verification. And the verification will be rigorous, and that is what's required at this part of the process and I think that's what we will achieve. But we're going to continue to monitor and verify and make sure that the North Koreans are living up to their obligations and that all of us -- the rest of the five parties are living up to our obligations also.
But the goal is an accounting of verifiable -- a system to verify compliance and the ultimate goal of the denuclearization of the Peninsula. That's the goal and that's what we're all working towards.
Q: But those critics are saying that the sequencing is the issue here, that the North will have pocketed the concessions on the state-sponsored terrorism, et cetera, before the accounting takes place.
MR. FRATTO: No, I think Secretary Rice answered that question yesterday. I don't think I have a whole lot more to add to what she said yesterday. And of course, the President I'm sure will have a chance to address it tomorrow at the presser.
Q: Two quick questions, Tony. One, as far as hunger around the globe is a major question and now because of the emergency call from the IMF, World Bank and also United Nations. And this morning there was a call for -- (inaudible) --. Now many countries are now asking questions, food or -- or many people around the globe -- food or oil. Don't you think that this is because of greediness from the oil-producing countries that this is causing the problem around the globe? And what you think President Bush now is seeking to help those countries who are affected from this hunger?
MR. FRATTO: Well, I can tell you, first, what we are doing -- and you saw what we announced last week, which was an additional $200 million worth of food aid. And, just as a reminder, again, the United States consistently, year over year, provides 45 to 50 percent of total emergency food assistance across the world. So we take that very seriously, and we're -- it's an important mission of USAID and in cooperation with the Agriculture Department. So it's critical. We think of it as saving lives, and it does save lives? We also have a request for an additional $350 million of food assistance that we would like to see out there.
The problem of global food production and getting it to the right places is much more complicated than pointing just to energy or any one issue out there. There are lots of factors that affect the price of food. Some of it is the result of -- when we talk about increasing demand, the front end of that story is a good news story. It is that more people are able to eat more because they have more income. And it obviously causes problems on the back end. They're also changing the kinds of food they eat so that you see more people eating beef, for example, and pork. And you need to feed beef cattle and pork to produce them, and that causes additional strain on grain supplies everywhere, and you see weather problems as a factor.
So it's complicated. We want to make sure that we are assisting countries that are in the most need and getting them what they need. We appreciate the call from the World Bank and Josette Sheeran at the World Food Program. They're working very hard and we want to work with them and make sure that they're getting what they need for this year.
Q: As far as this GAO report is concerned, according to a report, almost $5.5 billion was given for that special, particular FATA area, to combat al Qaeda and terrorism including bin Laden. And now, General Musharraf was in power for seven years, and now still is in power. Do you think this -- the new government, what do you expect as far as combating terrorism in that area and flushing out terrorists?
MR. FRATTO: I think we expect to continue to work in cooperation with the entire government of Pakistan to get after terrorism in the FATA region and the border. And I think everyone is committed to that goal.
Q: Tony, thank you very much. Two questions. First, could you briefly summarize the White House reaction and proposed solution to reports from California of gasoline now selling at $4.00 a gallon or more?
MR. FRATTO: Briefly summarize? No, I don't think that's possible, and you're not going to have immediate short-term solutions on things like gasoline prices. It took us a long time to get to a place where the price of gasoline is where it is. It's going to take us a long time to get off of oil as much as possible. We've already taken steps through the energy act in terms of conservation and increasing CAFE standards, and also replacing oil with alternative fuels. And so that will continue and we hope it does bring down the price of gasoline. We'd also like to see increased production from oil producers.
Q: That's a good answer. How --
MR. FRATTO: Thank you.
Q: Yeah. (Laughter.)
Q: Yeah, nice job.
MR. FRATTO: Do I get a star for that? (Laughter.)
Q: How does the White House react to the growing number of predictions that the terrible deadlock will be ended in Denver by nominating Al Gore on the second ballot?
MR. FRATTO: I don't think I have any reaction to that at all, Les. I'll stay out --
Q: No reaction? It doesn't even interest you, Tony?
MR. FRATTO: Not in the least, no.
Q: A couple for you. One is, former President Carter met with the exiled leader of Hamas today. I'm wondering if you could give us a reaction to that and say whether he's expected to be meeting with the President --
MR. FRATTO: I haven't seen any reporting out of that meeting. We're obviously aware that he did, and I think we made our feelings known going in as to whether we -- it was something we thought was wise or not, and I think we fell on the side of not.
Q: Okay. And Japan now says that the situation in Tibet is officially an international issue. Do you agree with that?
MR. FRATTO: That the situation in Tibet is an international -- I don't think we try to characterize it as a national issue or an international issue. I don't think that's the point of it. The point of it is that there are lots of places in the world where we have an interest in the human rights of the citizens who live there, and we express our interest and our concern in all of those places and we want to see the conditions improve.
Did you finish? (Laughter.) Let me take just that one last question on Korea.
Q: No --
MR. FRATTO: Well, you hesitated.
Q: About South Korea, yesterday South Korean President had proposed that North and South Korea should open liaison office, mutually, in Seoul and Pyongyang at the same time. What is your comment on this?
MR. FRATTO: Well, I think that is something that we have encouraged for some time, for there to be communication there. And it is something that is up to the two Koreas to discuss between themselves. And if President Lee believes that it will contribute in a positive way to the relationship, then we, of course, support his decision.
END 1:49 P.M. EDT
* Captain Joe Kobes is from Sumner, Washington and is now in military training in Virginia. The President taped the message to Captain Kobes in the Library.
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/277142