Press Gaggle by Gordon Johndroe
Crawford Middle School
11:26 A.M. CST
MR. JOHNDROE: Good morning. The President had his regular briefings this morning. Then President Bush spoke with British Prime Minister Blair. The President welcomed the safe return of the British personnel who had been detained in Iran. He also commended the British on their resolve in bringing the situation to a peaceful resolution.
I'd add now that we hope that the Iranians will move forward in compliance with their obligations in the United Nations Security Council resolutions.
I'd also note that it's been 59 days since the President asked Congress to get supplemental funding to our troops. It's time for them to get to the President a bill that doesn't tie the hands of our commanders on the ground. As James Baker, the co-chair of the Iraq Study Group said in this morning's Post, "The report does not set timetables" -- the Iraq Study Group Report -- "does not set timetables or deadlines for the removal of troops, as contemplated by the supplemental spending bills the House and Senate passed. In fact, the report," again, the Iraq Study Group report, "specifically opposes that approach. As many military and political leaders told us, an arbitrary deadline would allow the enemy to wait us out and would strengthen the positions of extremists over moderates. A premature American departure from Iraq, we," the Iraq Study Group, "unanimously concluded would almost certainly produce greater sectarian violence and further deterioration of conditions in Iraq and possibly other countries." For those reasons and others, we urge the Congress to get the President a clean bill that he can sign.
I would also note for you that Secretary Gates and General Pace will brief at the Pentagon at 1:45 p.m. Eastern today. And with that, I'll take your questions.
Q: Gordon, Zebari says that Iraq has been -- Iraq's government has been asking the United States for quite some time to release the Iranians who are held in the raid a couple months ago -- said that the Americans are just not complying. If Iraq is a sovereign government and we're just there at their invitation, why aren't we releasing those Iranians at their request?
MR. JOHNDROE: We certainly work hand-in-hand with the Iraqis on the security issues in Iraq. Right now it's our position that those detained were there engaged in actions that led to the deaths of innocent Iraqis, as well as Americans. So that's an ongoing process. We'll continue our discussions with the Iraqis on that.
Q: Throughout the ordeal of the hostages or the captives being taken, the White House has stood behind Mr. Blair. But can you talk a little bit about what the White House's role has been, if any, in trying to secure the release of soldiers?
MR. JOHNDROE: This was really an issue between the United Kingdom and Iran, and the U.K.'s efforts to secure the release of their 15 sailors. The United States, as we've said, stands behind Prime Minister Blair and the British, and did so throughout this process. But if you're suggesting, as some news reports have run, that there is any linkage between any other releases or any other people held in detention, there have been none. And so this was really a process between the United Kingdom and Iran.
Q: What are the prospects for releasing those five Iranians being held by U.S. forces?
MR. JOHNDROE: Well, that's an ongoing process. We're going to work that with the Iraqis to see what the next steps are, determining what course of justice should be carried out to deal with -- to deal with, frankly, what we believe were activities harmful to innocent Iraqis, as well as coalition forces.
Q: And they're believed to be responsible for supplying IEDs in Iraq? Or what charges are they being held under?
MR. JOHNDROE: You know, for any specifics like that I would have to refer you to -- multinational forces Iraq.
Q: Has this incident increased tensions with Iran? You're calling on them to comply with U.N. resolutions. Do you think that they will now move toward that, or what's the status there?
MR. JOHNDROE: Well, I think that we're hopeful that they will comply with the resolutions from the U.N. Security Council. The international community is united. We're certainly pleased the British sailors have returned home, as the President told Prime Minister Blair this morning.
But there's also additional work to be done. And we'd be hopeful to not have to go back to the U.N. Security Council for an additional sanction regime because in the interim period that Iran would comply with their obligations. So I think that's where things stand at the moment.
Q: So do you view the release in any way as an indication that Iran is now willing to engage in conduct more in the lines with the international community that you described?
MR. JOHNDROE: I think that I would view the detention of the British sailors as not in line with their willingness to work with the international community. But we, the British, and the international community are pleased that the Iranians decided to release the British sailors. What would show that they are more in line with the international community is to comply with the U.N. Security Council resolution, suspend their uranium enrichment and reprocessing activities. I think that would be -- that would show a great willingness to deal with the international community.
Q: Just to clarify -- can you say then definitively that the U.S. role in the release of the British sailors either directly or indirectly was limited only to their support of Tony Blair and his goal of getting a release peacefully? That's the only role this government played directly or indirectly with their release?
MR. JOHNDROE: To my knowledge, that is the only role the United States played, and that was a role of support to Prime Minister Blair.
Q: Gordon, on Sam Fox, there's some Democrats saying that --
Q: Can I stay on --
MR. JOHNDROE: Yes, we can stay on the international, then we'll come back to the overtly political. (Laughter.)
Q: This is covert.
Q: As opposed to the subtly political. What lessons does the administration take from the way the British handled this crisis? In other words, some are suggesting that because the Blair government was calm and not given to hysterical rhetoric and worked behind the scenes, that they were more successful than some cowboy diplomacy that might be tried elsewhere. (Laughter.)
Q: Can you repeat the question?
Q: I am in Texas, right?
MR. JOHNDROE: I think the question is clearly already in the record. We are pleased that there was a successful outcome to this situation. But I think I would point to the real outlier here, and that's Iran, and Iran's behavior.
Q: Thank you, Gordon. On Sam Fox, some Democrats are saying that he can be denied pay because it's a recess appointment. Is he prepared to do the job for free, or are you guys aware of that? What's your take?
MR. JOHNDROE: I think the State Department has something on that about his willingness to -- on his compensation. But I'd refer you to the State Department specifically, because they're the ones who handle that -- the finances of that position.
Q: Gordon, does the President see recess appointments as a way of circumventing Senate opposition to his nominees?
MR. JOHNDROE: I think the President views recess appointments as an appropriate way to get people who are qualified into jobs that need to be filled. And it's a process that's been used many times over the years for people whose nominations have lingered or have been stopped for various reasons.
Q: Well, on the Sam Fox case, on the day that the Foreign Relations Committee was going to put it to a vote, the President withdrew the nomination, and then a week later he recess appoints Sam Fox to that very same post. Now you've got some Democrats in the Senate calling it an abuse of the recess appointment authority.
MR. JOHNDROE: Well, I, of course, certainly would disagree with that. It's certainly a presidential prerogative. But I think it was clear that people were putting the politics over the policy of needing to get an ambassador into Brussels. And so the President took his action there to get our ambassador in place -- a qualified individual.
Q: Are you saying that the Senate Committee would have denied his nomination and it was all political, or do you think there are some other reasons why they might have denied him?
MR. JOHNDROE: Far be it for me to say why various members of the Committee would or would not deny Mr. Fox the ability to serve in the position. But the bottom line is, he's qualified for the position, the position needed to be filled.
Q: Republican Congressman Darrell Issa met in Damascus with Syria's President. Does the White House have a comment on that?
MR. JOHNDROE: I think the administration's position on members of Congress, Democrat or Republican, is very clear: We do not think it's productive; we do not think it is useful; we do not think it is helpful. Syria knows exactly what it needs to do to be a helpful and constructive player in the region and the world. And it's a few pretty well known issues: stop supporting Hamas and Hezbollah; stop letting terrorists into Iraq from Syria -- terrorists who then go on to kill innocent Iraqis, coalition forces, including Americans; stop undermining the democratically-elected government of Prime Minister Siniora in Lebanon; and stop suppressing the activities of human rights activists and democracy advocates inside Syria.
So our position, as we have said for some time now, well before the most high-level visits that have taken place to Damascus, is that we just don't think this is helpful. And I think history bears this out, that the Syrians still don't change their behavior, and this only makes them feel validated.
Q: Is there any room for compromise on the issue of the war funding supplemental? They're pushing timetables, you're wanting maximum flexibility. Is there any language that can bridge the gap? And Harry Reid now seems to be saying, the President needs to give us his plan or his thinking on the subject. Is the President going to -- are you going to talk to him?
MR. JOHNDROE: I would say the President gave his plan and his thinking on the subject 59 days ago today, and then approximately four weeks ago made it very clear, as the Congress was moving in a direction to set arbitrary timetables and mandate failure, made it very clear about four weeks ago that he does not think we should handcuff our commanders and our troops on the ground with these timetables, with these funding restrictions.
And so I think the President's position is very clear. What the Democrats did for the last four weeks, instead of discussing with the President a way to make sure that funding gets to the troops, they spent the last four weeks cobbling together votes, adding an additional $24 billion in spending for spinach, and peanuts, and tropical birds, or fish, and shrimp, and things like that. So in this four-week period, where the President's position is well-known, instead of having a discussion, they just jammed straight ahead, postponed their vote in the House a day or two in order to cobble together this bare majority.
So instead of over this four-week period doing that, they could have been engaged in a discussion. The President's position is well-known and clear. His position is reiterated by the Iraq Study Group, as James Baker lays out today. I've heard some commanders on the ground say they have concerns with timetables. So the President's position is clear. He's stated why he thinks this is the best course of action. His position has been known for some time now. And the Democrats just seem to have ignored it, just flat out ignored it, and just pushed forward with their vote.
Q: Is there room for compromise then?
MR. JOHNDROE: Well, we want to talk to the Congress. We've been willing to do that. But the President's position is very clear. But look, they left town without even appointing conferees in both Houses -- I think maybe one House did, the other didn't. So they don't even have a bill yet that they all agree on. And frankly, from some of their leadership, their position keeps on changing almost every day. You know, it's hard. Where do you -- where do you start a discussion when they're all over the place?
So, look, the most important thing is to get funding to our troops, and get it to them soon, and, you know, I hope that's everybody's goal. It's certainly the President's.
Q: Anything else on the President's day? You talked about his morning briefings. But anything later today, how he's going to spend the day?
MR. JOHNDROE: Yes, let's see, morning briefings, secure video conference with Prime Minister Blair, bike ride --
Q: Phone call or video conference?
MR. JOHNDROE: Secure video conference, bike ride, spending time with Mrs. Bush. His parents arrive tomorrow at lunch, and they'll be spending Easter weekend there at the ranch as they often do.
Yes, sir. You in the back.
Q: One more on the supplemental. Senator Reid told one of our affiliates yesterday that the President should come up to the Hill and talk to the Congress about the supplemental. Will he consider doing that when Congress comes back?
MR. JOHNDROE: I think the President is willing to engage in any discussion that will help get funding to our troops that doesn't tie the hands of our commanders on the ground, and also, I'd like to point out, provides funding for the various aspects of this strategy that it required. As the President said in the Rose Garden the other day, no, this is not just a military solution. But the additional troops, the reinforcement are there in Baghdad to help provide the space needed so the Iraqis can come up with a political solution.
But you know what the House bill does? The House bill cuts funding for PRTs, cuts millions of dollars for provincial reconstruction teams that work on the local level, cuts millions of dollars for rule of law programs and ways to help the local governments there build capacity.
So even while they say there's no military solution, Mr. President, it's only a political solution, they cut funding for it. So look, we'll engage in discussions that provide the appropriate funding to help make Baghdad secure, support our troops, and make Iraq a country that can govern, sustain, and defend itself, and is an ally in the war on terror.
Q: Gordon, just to clarify. The question was, would the President be willing to go to Capitol Hill? And you seemed to leave the door open.
MR. JOHNDROE: I don't -- I have not seen a specific invitation from Senator Reid. The comments I have seen from him over the last couple of days were actually not in that spirit. So it's hard for me to speak to. You know, they -- it's an interesting comment from him. We'll see -- we'll see when they all get back in town, and we'll go from there.
Q: Can I just clarify something on the Iran answer? Did you say you did not see it as a sign of good will from Iran, or you just don't see it as --
MR. JOHNDROE: The release of the sailors?
Q: Yes. You're talking about getting in line with the international obligations. You said that their seizure certainly was not in line, but are you saying that this is not a sign of goodwill, that it doesn't move the ball one way or another on the --
MR. JOHNDROE: As I said, we're pleased that they released the sailors. We just wish they hadn't detained them in the first place.
So, okay. Thank you all.
END 11:49 A.M. CDT
George W. Bush, Press Gaggle by Gordon Johndroe Online by Gerhard Peters and John T. Woolley, The American Presidency Project https://www.presidency.ucsb.edu/node/273576