Press Briefing by Tony Snow
White House Conference Center Briefing Room
2:56 P.M. EDT
MR. SNOW: Well, welcome one and all. Several preliminary items of business. First, a couple of foreign leader calls from earlier today. The President spoke to King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia. They discussed the effort to advance toward a Palestinian state and also peace between Israelis and Palestinians. They talked about Iran, the situation in Lebanon; and, also, the President thanked the King for Saudi Arabia's participation in the recent conference in Iraq.
He also spoke with President Mubarak of Egypt. In addition, he thanked President Mubarak for Egypt's participation in the Iraq conference. They discussed the situation in Iraq, the Israeli-Palestinian situation, Lebanon and a forthcoming trip to the region by Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice.
Also, just a note, we are happy that the United States Senate yesterday did vote down S-9, it was a resolution that would have tied the hands of combatant commanders when it came to ongoing operations in Iraq. Also we take note of the fact that there was an overwhelming bipartisan majority, 82 members who agreed that it was important not to cut off funding for troops in Iraq.
And, finally, with regard to the event that has kept us all a bit behind, I spoke to the Secret Service. Somebody did jump the fence. He's in custody and being questioned. That's routine. When he and his bundle made it over the fence, there were three separate packages -- a book, a tape recorder and some other items. One of the reasons it took so long is that they spent a lot of time taking great care in examining each and every one of those items, and that is why -- well, that's why we were in lockdown for so long.
Q: We're told he was 66 years old.
MR. SNOW: I don't know. I don't have any further details, other than that he is now in custody and being questioned.
Q: Has the White House decided whether or not Karl Rove and Harriet Miers are going to up to the Hill and testify?
MR. SNOW: No, there are ongoing conversations, and I don't have anything new to report to you.
Q: Do you expect a release of any documents from the White House or the Justice Department today?
MR. SNOW: Not aware of any. Certainly I don't expect any from the White House; I can't speak for Justice. You'll have to ask them.
Q: You characterized these firings as performance-based.
MR. SNOW: Yes. Well, that was characterized -- that was a characterization used on Capitol Hill by Paul McNulty. But the most important thing, frankly, from our point of view is that the President -- people serve at the pleasure of the President.
Q: I understand that. But in terms -- and he's -- in terms of, though, establishing the reasons why these particular -- or at least some of these particular U.S. attorneys were removed, the phrase "performance-based" has been used. Do you have any reason to dispute that as a characterization?
MR. SNOW: No, but I'm not going to get -- I'm going to let Justice argue the merits of those.
Q: Let me just follow, one question, because we've had a number of documents I've seen now which talk about the performances of McKay, of Cummins, of Carol Lam, and used terms that are all positive, if not glowing. So there seems to be a paper trail that indicates that at least some of these eight were doing a fine job.
MR. SNOW: Well, no, look, you can -- the world is full of places where you can have positive performance reviews, and there are still places where you think you can improve. But you know what? Again, I want to go back to the key point here, which is, people serve at the pleasure of the President. And that is the important principle that really is involved here. I'm not going to be the fact witness on what goes on at Justice. I'd refer you back to there on that.
Q: But the issue isn't whether or not they serve at the pleasure of the President, it's when they're removed you either say we want to bring somebody in who is more in line with the administration's goals and policies -- that's different than saying we want to move someone out for bad performance, when the paper trail indicates they were doing a good job.
MR. SNOW: Again, I think -- first, there's no inconsistency with saying, look, people are doing a good job, but, on the other hand, there are other priorities that one may need to follow. I'm just not going to get into trying to argue about grading and peer performance reviews. Again, getting back to the principle here, the people serve at the pleasure of the President and if there's a decision to replace them, it's important that they're to be replaced.
Q: But, Tony, you have said that politics and loyalty didn't play a part in this.
MR. SNOW: Yes. And let me -- there's been a lot of conversation about loyalty, so let me -- I don't want to -- I'll just begin with a caveat: I do not know precisely what Kyle Sampson had in mind when he used the term. But let me tell you how the term applies in this White House, which is that, certainly, we all serve at the pleasure of the President; we're loyal to the President in that sense. But the President has charged each one of us to do our jobs -- to do our jobs, to perform the public trust. That also means to follow the principles and the priorities of the administration.
When it comes to the administration of justice, the President lays down broad guidelines; when it comes to U.S. attorneys, broad prosecutorial guidelines. Those guidelines may shift from district to district; there are 93 around the country that have different priorities. But if somebody has difficulty or if somebody decides for reasons of conscience or whatever that they disagree with a key priority -- whether it be something like the death penalty or pornography statutes or whatever -- that's certainly a suitable basis for review.
But, again, the most important principle here is people do serve at the pleasure of the President.
Q: Tony, do you now know whether it was Harriet Miers who first brought up the idea of removing all 93?
MR. SNOW: Again -- no, I don't. And what we've said -- I tried to make clear earlier today, the most -- here's what I can say -- the most certain thing I can say at this juncture is that Karl Rove has a recollection of Harriet having raised it with him, and his expressing to her that he thought it was a bad idea.
I don't know if there were other discussions about it, but that's really as far as we can go.
Q: You've said repeatedly today, and the President has said this in Mexico, that these attorneys serve at the pleasure of the President.
MR. SNOW: Right.
Q: So that being said, how do you consider, how does this White House consider all of the coverage of this and the hubbub on Capitol Hill about it?
MR. SNOW: I'm not going to grade that, as tempting as it may be. You know -- I'll just avoid the --
Q: Well, do you think it's all political? Do you think it's all --
MR. SNOW: Oh, okay, now that you've rephrased it -- (laughter) -- I'm going to snap at the bait. (Laughter.)
Q: I mean, the way that you answer questions, it seems like you would want to answer this question.
MR. SNOW: No, because it gets into the position of trying to read people's motivations. I don't want to do that. But on the other hand, certainly what happened is entirely appropriate in terms of removing people who serve at the pleasure of the President. Each and every one of the seven had fulfilled their terms as U.S. attorneys. At that point you have a hold-over provision, and it was decided to find replacements.
Q: And how much confidence does the President have that Attorney General Gonzales is going to be able to move beyond this controversy and continue in his job?
MR. SNOW: Well, he continues on his job. I don't quite understand how to -- Toby, the notion is that somehow everything stops because you guys are on a story. There are more than 100,000 attorneys working for the U.S. Department of Justice, doing a lot of important business, including corruption investigations, very good record on that, more than a thousand prosecutions per year out of the Department of Justice, in some cases approaching 1,500.
So the point here is the Department of Justice is a big, important Department and continues to function. But we understand there's a certain amount of controversy here. On the other hand, make no mistake about the basics: people serving at the pleasure of the President and that it's entirely proper to do replacements.
Q: And Attorney General Gonzales also, you know, was nominated by the President. Is there any talk at all that perhaps he won't be able to continue doing the job, given what's happened?
MR. SNOW: No. But -- no.
Q: Tony, you used the word -- your term was "remove and replace." Critics are saying "fire." Is there a distinction in your mind?
MR. SNOW: I don't know. I mean, I think there are all different ways of describing the same thing.
Q: But, also, in the Sampson email, he talked about how change of administrations -- he used the word "fired." He talked about the beginning of Clinton, the beginning of the President's father's term. Is there -- is there a distinction in making a change after a four-year term or in the middle --
MR. SNOW: I don't know that -- there are any number of reasons that -- I mean, you can make distinctions, but the fact is, the general principle, you serve at the pleasure of the President. At any juncture, there can be a decision to put somebody else in the position.
On the other hand, if you take a look at what Kyle Sampson is talking about -- I've got the memo up here, let me -- I just want to read through, it said, in 43, in 2001, many Clinton-appointed U.S. attorneys were fired. I don't know. I just --
Q: Some of them were the (inaudible) of a four-year term.
MR. SNOW: Right. But many of them had completed -- what's interesting is that it appears based on, at least what we've seen in emails, that there was some sensitivity, in terms of letting everybody complete the four-year term who had been appointed by this President.
Q: Tony, is it the President's intention, then, to keep Attorney General Gonzales in his current position through the remainder of the Bush administration?
MR. SNOW: You're asking me what's going to happen for the next two years, Sheryl. I'm not going to -- I'm just not going to answer it.
Q: How about for the next two weeks?
MR. SNOW: That's keep him in the position.
Q: And, also, it's my understanding that, in the past, aides to Presidents have testified on Capitol Hill. Dan Bartlett said earlier this week that it is highly unlikely that Karl Rove would testify. Why is that? Why does the President --
MR. SNOW: I'm not going to get -- you're absolutely right, there have been some cases; in some administrations they have and in others they have not.
Q: So why --
MR. SNOW: What you're asking me to do is to lift the veil on ongoing legal deliberations; I'm really not going to do it. There are conversations going on right now between the White House and leaders on Capitol Hill, and we've made it clear: We want to get them the information they need. And we've always said it has to be consistent with presidential prerogatives. But at this juncture I think it's premature for me to try to make characterizations, including comparisons to previous administrations, about how we proceed.
Q: And excuse me if this has been asked and answered, but when do you expect to have a decision on that, and also on any documents that Congress is requesting?
MR. SNOW: Don't know -- the answer to both of those is, I don't know. People are considering it.
Q: What was the gist of the phone call with Abdullah on Iran and the Palestinians?
MR. SNOW: Well, I'm leaving it at that. I mean, it's important to try to make sure -- I'm sorry, on the Palestinians? Well, the Saudis, like -- let me put it this way: The President made clear once again his commitment to a Palestinian state that can live side by side in peace with Israel. And he thanked the King --
Q: But he won't accept a democratic election.
MR. SNOW: Well, no, he has accepted a democratic election. But on the other hand, he's not going to acknowledge a government that will not follow the Quartet -- we're not going to deal directly, in terms of negotiations with a government that doesn't adopt the Quartet conditions.
King Abdullah has been playing a constructive role in the region, and the President --
Q: That has nothing to do with -- he promotes democracy in the Middle East.
MR. SNOW: Yes.
Q: Well, then, why doesn't he accept it?
MR. SNOW: He does. It doesn't mean that he has to adopt all the -- he doesn't have to agree.
Q: But he ought to be able to recognize a majority election.
MR. SNOW: Okay, thank you.
Q: Tony, if the White House is unsure who, exactly, came up with the idea, floated the idea to dismiss all 93 U.S. attorneys, and Karl Rove recalls it was Harriet Miers, has anyone at the White House thought to contact Harriet Miers and ask her if it was her idea?
MR. SNOW: The Counsel's Office has talked with her. The question is, does it matter? Does it matter who comes up with an idea?
Q: Does it matter if the White House said it was her, and then you're incorrect? I mean, you're giving out incorrect information. I'm not --
MR. SNOW: Well, what happened was -- and I'll lay that on myself -- I was referring earlier, as I said today, to a Kyle Sampson memo that came out that had stated that it was her idea. But at this point, I think -- I want to try to err on the side of caution by noting that Karl had a recollection that she had mentioned it to him, and that's really as far as we can go with it.
Q: So you know that someone has talked to her, but you don't know if anyone has asked her that question, specifically.
MR. SNOW: I don't know. And, frankly, I believe you understand how internal deliberations go. But let's think about this for a moment. Again, you've got an idea; it is raised; it is not followed. Is it germane about who comes up with an idea that eventually is not followed by an administration?
Q: A bizarre idea, firing 93 people.
MR. SNOW: Oh, happened once before. (Laughter.)
Q: Even so, still bizarre.
MR. SNOW: Okay, well, I'll let you -- let President Clinton make the calls to you.
Q: Have there been any conversations in the last few days between the President and Alberto Gonzales about whether Gonzales should step down?
MR. SNOW: No. He did have a brief conversation the other day, where he expressed his support to him.
Q: So they've not discussed this at all?
MR. SNOW: No.
Q: When was that?
MR. SNOW: That was -- it was the other morning when we were -- yes, where were we? We were in Mexico, I believe. It was before we left Mexico. It was --
Q: So it was the conversation that he referred to in that media availability?
MR. SNOW: Yes, it was a conversation that took place shortly before the press conference.
Q: How was the tone? What was the President like during that conversation?
MR. SNOW: He was friendly and supportive. He and Al Gonzales have known each other a long time.
Q: Howard Dean said yesterday -- compared this to Watergate, he said it could be the President's Watergate. Any response to that?
MR. SNOW: Howard Dean is playing politics; I'm really surprised.
Q: You think it comes anywhere close?
MR. SNOW: No.
Q: On Iran, does the Bush administration believe that more sanctions will result in a positive development?
MR. SNOW: I think what you see is -- and it's a good question, because I think it reflects the way in which we approach foreign policy. For all those who have been trying to create this narrative about invading Iran, which is silly, what we've really said is that we're going to use diplomatic means to try to get the government in Iran to change its behavior. We had one Chapter 7 resolution through the U.N. Security Council. The Iranians failed to abide by what went on, so we went back to the Security Council. We now have an agreement with the P5 and it's being presented to the full Security Council.
What you need to try to do is to work so that you have a variety of partners, especially those in the neighborhood and those who have leverage over the government concerned, as we have with North Korea, and try to use incentives as a way of getting people back to a table so that you not only advance the cause of peace, but at the same time, you create conditions where you can do what's right for the people of that country. I mean, we're offering the people of Iran a very good deal, and what we want to do is make it clear to the Iranian people that we do support them, and that there is a way out of the kind of bind that would be presented by pursuing a nuclear option.
Q: Would you describe the U.S. and its allies as being patient in this matter, though?
MR. SNOW: Yes, patient and determined.
Q: Tony, real quick, back to the loyalty question. In that Kyle Sampson memo, he says, "The vast majority of U.S. attorneys, 80 to 85 percent, I would guess, are doing a great job, are loyal Bushies," et cetera. Does the President believe that a U.S. attorney is successful if he's a "loyal Bushie"?
MR. SNOW: Again, you're going to have to -- what you're trying to do is to get the President to respond to a characterization by Kyle Sampson. I've already told you what the definition of loyalty is in this White House, which is to do your job -- to understand that it is an honor to be in the White House, and an honor to serve the American people, and you treat that as a trust. Loyalty to the President means doing your job and faithfully carrying out the priorities of the administration.
I think I laid it out, when you're talking about U.S. attorneys, that means following the priorities within the Department of Justice; it means doing your job -- doing it faithfully, all.
Q: How about the oath to office?
MR. SNOW: We believe in that, too. Chow time. (Laughter.)
END 3:14 P.M. EDT
George W. Bush, Press Briefing by Tony Snow Online by Gerhard Peters and John T. Woolley, The American Presidency Project https://www.presidency.ucsb.edu/node/273009