Press Briefing by Tony Snow
White House Conference Center Briefing Room
1:13 P.M. EST
MR. SNOW: Good afternoon. A quick statement by the President before I get to questions -- again, reading the statement by the President: Today I'm pleased to announce my decision to create a Department of Defense Unified Combatant Command for Africa. I've directed the Secretary of Defense to stand up a U.S.-Africa Command by the end of fiscal year 2008.
This new command will strengthen our security cooperation with Africa and create new opportunities to bolster the capabilities of our partners in Africa. Africa Command will enhance our efforts to bring peace and security to the people of Africa and to promote our common goals of development, health, education, democracy and economic growth in Africa.
We will be consulting with African leaders to seek their thoughts on how Africa Command can respond to security challenges and opportunities in Africa. We will also work closely with our African partners to determine an appropriate location for the new command in Africa.
Q: How much does it cost, and is Darfur included?
MR. SNOW: Well, Darfur continues to be a matter of concern. I direct you to DOD for specifics on this.
Q: Is this specifically to address the Darfur problem --
MR. SNOW: No, there are a whole series of -- we have a lot of commitments and interests in Africa, Darfur clearly being one of them. But we also continue to work with the African Union to try to work to get forces in to stop the genocide in Darfur.
Q: How much does this cost?
MR. SNOW: Again, I direct that to DOD. They'll be able to give you a precise breakdown.
Q: Iran says it's holding the United States responsible for the safety of an Iranian diplomat who was seized by people in Iraqi uniforms, Iraqi soldier uniforms. What do you know about this?
MR. SNOW: All we know is that the Iraqi government is investigating it. And obviously, we abide by and support the Vienna Convention for diplomats. But we don't really know a lot about it at this point. We know that the Iraqi government is investigating.
Q: And is the United States -- can it confirm that Iraqi soldiers took this person?
MR. SNOW: Again, I think you -- refer all that to the Iraqi government. We've seen the news reports. We're not in the business of confirming. They're investigating. I would refer you to the people doing the investigation.
Q: Do we know, did it happen?
MR. SNOW: I've seen news reports, again, Terry --
Q: Nothing more than that?
MR. SNOW: Terry, you know who to call, or you know who to have your people call.
Q: I'm starting with you.
MR. SNOW: All right, and I'm telling you that this is something that the Iraqis are investigating.
Q: Secretary Gates, earlier today, testified that if -- he said in his words, if the plan to quiet Baghdad is successful, the Iraqis accept the responsibilities, that he could see withdrawing some U.S. troops, a drawdown, within a couple of months. Does that sound like the goal of the administration? Is that a realistic assessment?
MR. SNOW: The question is, Secretary Gates was saying that if certain things took place on the ground, he could see possible drawdowns in U.S. forces -- and I'm paraphrasing Suzanne's question -- within a couple of months; is that the administration's goal?
Our goal is to make sure that the Iraqis are able to assume full and effective control of security operations, and also political and economic operations within their country as soon as possible. There are any numbers of scenarios that are going to play out, but as we've also said many times, you've got to see what's going on on the ground. So that, certainly, is one of the scenarios, but there are many that could play out.
Q: I've read a couple of articles, in two papers this morning, that seems to back up what our people in Iraq are saying, which is that the Iraqi soldiers do not make, at this point, the kind of partners on a raid that a lot of the U.S. troops feel comfortable trusting, that they're not up to the job yet. What evidence do you have, or have you seen, that the Iraqi soldiers are up to the job?
MR. SNOW: Number one, we have all seen differing reports. As a matter of fact, you open today's newspapers, and you have everything from, yes, they're doing great, to, we're still building -- working with them.
There are two things. First, we have heard many times from our combatant commanders that there is significantly increased capability among the Iraqis, and there is also testimony from reporters, bloggers, embeds and others that they've seen a considerable improvement over the last 12 months.
Nevertheless, it's also the case that there is still the need to build greater capability. As I've said many times from this podium, part of the embed program is to build capacity in such things as transportation, logistics, intelligence, and other fundamental business when it comes to securing Baghdad or other areas around the country.
So we're going to continue working with the Iraqis to get them up. I would be very careful about trying to draw a broad brush about every Iraqi unit, because, obviously, there are going to be different levels of readiness with different units, and the Iraqi government has asked us, and we are certainly happy to help, in building greater capability so that the Iraqis can, at the earliest possible date, be fully responsible for their operations.
Q: When you're making -- when the administration is making decisions about how to proceed, who has got their eyes on the quality of soldiers that the U.S. troops will be partnering with?
MR. SNOW: It starts, as you know, at the unit level. And people who are directly engaged are going to do their assessments, and they're going to work through combatant commanders. So everybody is taking a look -- not only at that, but also the readiness of our own forces. You constantly do that in a time of war.
Q: Budget question for you, Tony. A lot of the criticism Democrats are having early on is about the AMT -- the alternative minimum tax. Mr. Portman tried to explain this the other day, but there is a patch for this year, yet it's not built into the budget years forward. Can you do your best to explain how the administration is thinking about this?
MR. SNOW: Well, we continue -- obviously, the AMT is a source of concern to a lot of people, and we'll continue working with Congress to try to address it. It's also politically ticklish. And we will work with Democrats and Republicans to try to come up with a satisfactory resolution. We do have a one-year AMT patch, you're absolutely right. But if you want to get into the tall grass on that, I'll get you in touch with people at OMB who can walk through the specifics on it.
Q: But on the higher level, balancing the budget by 2012, how can you do it if you don't forecast what you're going to do with the AMT after next year?
MR. SNOW: Well, again, that's one of the things that -- we still think that this is something that we can deal with over a period of time. Part of it is Congress also has to make some decisions about how they deal with AMT. This is not something where the administration is in a position to decree, so we're going to be working with Congress.
But on the other hand, what do we have in this budget, and what have had in the last few budgets? A combination of discipline, especially on the domestic side, with strong economic growth, which is a byproduct of the tax cuts. And we continue to have projections for strong economic growth. And it's the combination of strong growth and fiscal discipline that we're confident is going to get us to a position of having a balanced budget within the next five years.
I'd also point out -- if you take a look at those who complained about rosy scenarios, they've complained in each of the last few years, and it turns out we've been, if anything, pessimistic about our projections -- which is what you want to be, in a sense. You want to be conservative about your revenue projections. As Rob Portman was pointing out yesterday, we projected a 5.5 percent increase in revenue; the first quarter revenues were up 8.2 percent. Last year revenues were in -- increased in excess of 11 percent; the year before that, in excess of 14 percent.
So, a byproduct of strong economic growth is, you're always going to have more revenue. And we are determined to try to hold the line on spending, and so we use conservative fiscal calculations. And, as I said, on the particular issues of AMT, it makes more sense to get you in touch with the numbers guys at OMB.
Q: Tony, in his speech today in Virginia, the President talked about trying to find common ground on Medicare and Social Security. Are there any new ideas that he wants to put on the table, or is he referring to --
MR. SNOW: No, the President really has put his ideas on the table, and now what has been going on is Treasury Secretary Paulson and others have been talking around town to say, we know everybody has concern; it is absolutely clear to one and all that the present system is unsustainable in the long run. So you need to find a way that is going to enable us to meet our obligations to retirees without bankrupting younger generations of workers. So if people have other ideas, we'd certainly like to see them.
Q: But he doesn't have any new ones?
MR. SNOW: He does have --
Q: They were non-starters in the last session.
MR. SNOW: Well, you know what? They make sense. The point is, at some point, one has to stop looking strictly through a political lens and ask the very pragmatic question, what works? And we're absolutely confident that this approach works.
Q: Tony, first of all, I am very, very thankful to the U.S. Ambassador, Mr. Mulford, in New Delhi. He opened the doors of the U.S. embassy on a courtesy call. And I bring the best wishes for the President. What he said was U.S.-India relations, that couldn't be better than today. And my question is that, can you add, or how would President put the U.S.-India relations today after this civil nuclear agreement signed? Because this is the talk of the town all over India, or among Indians.
MR. SNOW: Well, before you left -- and we talked about this before -- this is exceedingly important to us. We see India as an increasingly vital and important partner, not merely with the civil nuclear agreement, but also on matters of security and trade. As we proceed toward the Doha Round, obviously India becomes a key partner there, as well.
So we look forward to closer relations in years to come. We're bound by common interests. India is the largest democracy on the face of the Earth, and an important -- and an increasingly important ally.
Q: Is there any significance to the budget regarding Iraq, going down to $142 billion in 2008, and then going down to $50 billion in 2009? I know these are place-holders, but does that give us some indication of where --
MR. SNOW: Well, not necessarily. You know, it's often said that they're place-holders, but what we also have -- there are a series of expenditures, especially in these budgets, that have to do with resets -- in other words, resetting with equipment -- and there are one-time expenditures also for arming up Iraqis. So there are some significant up-front expenditures, especially in this year's budget.
Our commanders have put together what they think are going to meet their requirements. And let's note that we're talking about Iraq and Afghanistan, as well as other engagements around the world. This is a defense budget that includes all of those. And we've tried to be as transparent as possible. They've given it their best guess. We are certainly confident that these budget projections represent everybody's best estimate of what it will cost to conduct operations through the end of this administration.
But as always is the case, you got to react to facts on the ground. So if there are changes, certainly we're going to make them, either on the plus side or the minus side in terms of budgetary impact. But the one thing we also committed to Congress is we would try to be as transparent as possible in terms of estimating what the expenditures and what the carrying costs would be.
Q: Does the best guess in terms of money indicate that the best guess in terms of troop levels would be a pretty significant decline?
MR. SNOW: I'd leave that -- I'll direct that back to the Secretary of Defense and General Pace. I don't want to be up here trying to be the guy speculating on troop levels.
Q: Can I ask you about an argument the President made today and has made repeatedly in terms of the tax cuts? He speaks of the economic output that is raised by the tax cuts. But he specifically is crediting his tax cuts for the increased revenues to the U.S. Treasury. Does the President believe that the tax cuts have paid for themselves, or will pay for themselves anytime in the foreseeable future?
MR. SNOW: What you're doing is you're getting yourself into abstruse ground. There are any number of ways of calculating it. By some calculations they have paid for themselves and then some. But what I'd ask to do before getting into that thicket is to find out what you want to use as your base, know what your baselines are, because whenever one gets into games like this, it's all about assumptions. And I don't know what assumptions are embedded in the question.
Q: I'm not sure I'd look at it as a game, but when the President says low taxes means economic vitality, which means more tax revenues --
MR. SNOW: Yes.
Q: -- does the Treasury tell him that more money is coming in than was lost to the tax cuts?
MR. SNOW: Well, I'm not sure -- the whole point is that the tax cuts generate extra economic activity. All you have to do is -- I would, if you want to --
Q: That's a separate issue.
MR. SNOW: Well, no, it's not. It's not a separate issue at all. What it says is when you have greater economic --
Q: If the economy is growing more, that's one thing; but whether tax revenues are growing is a separate issue.
MR. SNOW: Well, but tax revenues tend to grow in tandem with economic activity. When you've got a growing economy -- let's take a look at what we have. We have an economy where we've had economic growth for 42 consecutive months. You also have an economy that now has more people working than ever before. You've got higher levels of employment, home ownership, economic activity. Wages, especially in recent months, have shown real significant growth. Real disposable income up 5.4 percent in the fourth quarter of last year. You put all that together, you're going to have more revenue. And the fact is, a good, growing economy is always good for revenues.
Q: I'm asking specifically about the budget, which is what the President was arguing about today. And when he says low taxes means more tax revenues --
MR. SNOW: Yes, that's right.
Q: -- he is, in a sense, saying that it makes it easier to balance the budget, is he not?
MR. SNOW: Yes. A growing economy always makes it easier to balance the budget.
Q: No, that cutting taxes in the way he's done makes it easier to balance the budget.
MR. SNOW: But cutting the taxes -- you're not connecting the dots. Cutting the taxes, in fact, is something that encourages economic growth. And it is that economic growth that ends up generating the revenue, that allows you to balance the budget ahead of time.
Q: But has the Treasury told him that the tax cuts enacted on his watch make it easier to balance the budget?
MR. SNOW: I'm not sure that anybody has framed it that way. Call over to Treasury, ask them.
Q: I've looked at their analyses; I don't see it, is why I'm asking.
MR. SNOW: Like I said, that's why -- when you talk about pay-for, that really does get into how are you cutting it, and what are you using as your baseline, what's your projection, what are the assumptions. That is not as simple a question as you might think it is. It just isn't. Whenever you get into --
Q: I know this debate is to how big the effect is, but I've not seen it --
MR. SNOW: But I've also heard people say, yes, we can say it's paid for. But you're asking me to play the role of economist, and as any first-year economic student will tell you, it's all about assumptions. So if you want to get into that argument, I really would suggest you talk to trained economists at the Department of Treasury or within our economic shop, and they'll be able to give you a more precise readout on it.
Q: Tony, could you explain the $3.4 billion for Katrina in the President's FY 2008 budget?
MR. SNOW: This is part of the -- the $3.4 billion additional for Katrina funding, and this is part of a relief fund, an emergency relief fund. I think, in fact, I sent you the charts on it yesterday. So it's part of the emergency relief fund that is used for various operations; FEMA is the one that administers that fund.
Q: But some might question as there is still a disparity between New Orleans receiving their money and other Katrina-affected localities receiving theirs. Why keep putting money on top of money when money has not been spent in some of the Katrina-affected localities?
MR. SNOW: Well, there are different accounts here, and part of this is maintaining flexibility. This is an emergency spending account, where actually the various states have drawn more out of this account than any other, so you want to make sure you have flexibility. But, for instance, when it comes to housing, in the housing funds, New Orleans -- they've appropriated $10.4 billion for New Orleans, and New Orleans has spent one-tenth of a billion, $100 million, so about 1 percent of the allocated money. Obviously, in that case, you're not going to be adding more money. But if you take a look at some of the FEMA funding, that's where you've had the most significant draws to date.
Q: I hate to beat a dead horse, but when will the administration -- or does the administration plan to put fire under the leaders in New Orleans and some of the other areas as to why money has not been spent as of yet? And who is at fault?
MR. SNOW: Look, I'm not -- we're not going to point fingers, but this is something that's now in the hands of local jurisdictions, and they have the opportunity. The money has been allocated -- I mean the money has been appropriated, so the question now is have they done what they need to do.
As you see quite often, April, you do have to do certain things to try to guard against over-expenditure. As a matter of fact, there is a request on the part of FEMA for some $300 million to be returned because there were more checks cut in some areas than were residents. But on the other hand -- so you do have a certain fiduciary obligation to try to make sure that people are putting in place the right kind of guidelines to ensure that money is being spent wisely. But this is something that we're perfectly willing to assist local officials. They're the ones who now -- the ball is in their court.
Q: If I'm reading this between the lines, are you saying that they're basically not wanting your help? Is that what you're --
MR. SNOW: No, I'm not saying that at all. I would -- if you want a characterization of their state of mind, you need to call them. We are eager to help.
Q: Thank you, Tony. A couple of questions. There's a news report from the Yazoo City Federal Correctional Complex in Mississippi that former U.S. Border Patrol Agent Ignacio Ramos was -- has been attack by five illegal alien inmates and severely beaten. My question: What is the President's reaction to this, since he refused thousands of requests to pardon this man?
MR. SNOW: Well, first I would be careful, even though your own publication was responsible for that report. Here is a statement from Charles Smith --
Q: They're the only ones -- are you say they were the only ones?
MR. SNOW: Here's a statement from Charles Smith, who represents the institution, and here's their report: "On February 3rd, 2007, at approximately 10:15 p.m., inmate Ignacio Ramos, an inmate incarcerated at the federal correctional complex in Yazoo City, Mississippi, reported to staff that he had been assaulted. Mr. Ramos was evaluated by medical staff at the institution, who determined he had sustained some bruises and abrasions. The injuries sustained were minor in nature. Inmate Ramos was subsequently placed in the special housing unit, pending a thorough investigation of the incident. He will remain in the special housing unit until the conclusion of this investigation. No further information is available at this time."
Q: That's a good answer. (Laughter.)
MR. SNOW: It was a predictable question.
Q: I have a couple of follow-ups. The Fort Worth Star Telegraph quotes President Bush on Fox TV network as saying that he is bound by strict federal guidelines on pardons, and cannot immediately grant a pardon to Border Patrol agents Ramos and Compean because, quote, "there is a series of steps that are analyzed in order for the Justice Department to make a recommendation as to whether or not a President grants a pardon," from the President. Was this series of analyzed steps followed when President Jerry Ford pardoned President Nixon even before he was tried; when President Carter pardoned all those draft resisters?
MR. SNOW: You know, that is one of the most preposterous comparisons I've ever heard. But having said that, let me just -- what you're asking is, should the President waive standard procedures in this case. And the answer is, no, we want to be careful about issuing pardons, and we're trying to be careful about the facts, which is why the Department of Justice is in the process of trying to get full transcripts of the trial of Agents Compean and Ramos, so you and everybody else who are willing to ask questions about this will be armed with facts.
Q: Page one of The Washington Times quotes --
MR. SNOW: This is part three of a two-part question.
MR. SNOW: This is the last one.
Q: That's right, it is.
MR. SNOW: Thank you.
Q: Yes. (Laughter.)
Q: Thank you. Page one of The Washington Times quotes Texas Republican Congressman Ted Poe, who deplored the conviction of Texas Deputy Sheriff Guillermo Hernandez, who fired shots at a fleeing vehicle with illegal aliens, saying, "This is another example of how the federal government is more concerned about people who are illegally invading America than it is about the men who protect America." And my question: Does the President believe that Texas Republican Poe, another Republican Congressman, and hundreds of thousands of petition signers on this issue are all wrong?
MR. SNOW: You have just conflated two entirely different stories, Les, and I want to congratulate you for it. I think what the President has done is spend more money on border security than any President in American history. And there have been more --
Q: But the wall -- why isn't the wall in the budget? The wall was cut out.
MR. SNOW: It's a fence, and it is in the budget. Sorry.
Q: The report is that it's not.
MR. SNOW: No, the report is about how much can be afforded, and that is a fiscal question.
Q: Presidents may not be able to predict the weather or change the weather, but is there anything that the President has been either briefed on about the current cold wave across the country, or any federal resources that are being brought to bear?
MR. SNOW: I don't know. I'll find out.
Q: North Korea wants more from the United States -- more oil, the unfreezing of its bank accounts, peaceful nuclear energy, and normal relations with the U.S. What is the President's reaction?
MR. SNOW: The President's reaction is, our conditions have always been the same for returning to the six-party talks, which we believe the North Koreans will do on Thursday, which is, they do it without precondition. Our view is very simple, which is that the North Koreans have to suspend nuclear enrichment and reprocessing activities, and furthermore, they have to back off the nuclear program. And we have made it clear, also within the context of the six-party talks, that we are willing to discuss a wide range of issues, including closer relations. But first thing is to get to the table. That should happen on Thursday.
Q: Tony, a question that's arisen about the budget is, the President talked about bipartisanship over the weekend when he spoke to House Democrats. Yet in the budget there are fairly large cuts for Medicare and Medicaid, $77 billion over five years, I think $280 billion over the next 10 years. And some say that this could be seen as a slap in the face to Democrats, who are certainly not going to take this sitting down.
MR. SNOW: Well, actually, a number of these -- for instance, the President's proposals on prescription drugs are things that in the past -- not only prescription drugs, but also health care reform -- you go back and look at a number of Democrats have proposed things that are quite similar in the past. This isn't a slap in the face. This is an acknowledgment that you have to find a humane and sensible way of making health care more affordable for everybody.
Also you will note -- and we've been encouraged by statements, because we have continued to reach out to Democrats who understand the nature of the long-term challenge, who have talked about their willingness to explore ideas for trying to make private health insurance available to everybody regardless of medical condition or income.
And that -- if you take a look at the President's health care proposal, it talks about creating a true private market for individuals -- this is what the tax deduction involves. But at the same time, he acknowledges that there are people with preexisting conditions and also those who have low incomes who still are going to have difficulty affording it. So he is now working to try to come up with ways of bridging that gap to make sure that private insurance becomes available to everybody. And that's a goal that both parties share.
So, no, this is not a slap in the face. Furthermore, this is one of these classic Washington definitions of cuts where the expenditure level increases -- as a matter of fact, the expenditure level on Medicare I believe falls from 7.4 percent annual growth to 6.7 percent annual growth. So there's significant annual growth. And in terms of dollars, there are no cuts at all. So this is -- what you're talking about is the classic cuts against a projected baseline.
What the President is trying to do is to give people the best of all worlds, which is more effective access to health care in the form of private insurance for all Americans, and at the same time, try to work it in a way that it's going to be fiscally responsible. And we look forward -- and we have been having conversations with Democrats about this. The President had some over the weekend.
Q: Would you say then that these cuts are, in fact, a way of perhaps phasing Medicare or Medicaid, and to move more towards private accounts?
MR. SNOW: No, because you're still looking for innovative ways to make sure that you make private insurance affordable to all, and you can, in fact, use some of those monies for doing it. But again, they are not cuts. If you can come back and demonstrate to me that there is less money available after five years, then I will call them cuts. But they are increases on the order of 6.7 percent per year.
Q: Regarding the British soldier who was killed by friendly fire -- why has it taken the administration so long to release the video?
MR. SNOW: Again, that I would refer to the Department of Defense. That's properly their jurisdiction.
All right, thanks.
END 1:39 P.M. EST
Tony Snow, Press Briefing by Tony Snow Online by Gerhard Peters and John T. Woolley, The American Presidency Project https://www.presidency.ucsb.edu/node/272925