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Remarks on Afghanistan and a Question-and-Answer Session With Reporters

February 16, 1989

The President. Let me just say, I am going to hand you all, or Marlin will provide it later on, a statement on Afghanistan. I'll just give you a little summary of it at the outset here.

We support the Afghan efforts to fashion a stable, broadly based government, responsive to the needs of the Afghan people. Throughout the long, dark years of Afghanistan's occupation, the international community has been steadfast in its support of the Afghan cause, and this certainly has been true for the United States. Our commitment, the commitment of the United States to the people there, will remain; and it will remain firm, both through our bilateral humanitarian aid program and through the United Nations efforts to remove the mines and resettle the refugees and help reconstruct the war-torn economy.

So, we would call upon the Soviet Union to refrain from other forms of interference in Afghan affairs. The Soviet Union has nothing to fear from the establishment of an independent, nonaligned Afghanistan. And they do bear a certain special responsibility for healing the wounds of this war. And I would hope that the Soviet Union would generously support international efforts to rebuild Afghanistan.

And there will be a fuller statement on this later on.

Q. Were you hoping also that the rebels would not conduct a bloodbath once they get in the ascendant and really take power?

The President. Yes.

Q. I mean, it's a two-way street, isn't it? In victory, magnanimity. Is there any sense that you would like to convey that to the rebels, or do you think it's just a one-way street for the Soviets?

The President. Well, I don't think a bloodbath is in anyone's interest. And I think if we had a catalytic role, I would hope it would be, along with others, working towards reconciliation and towards a peaceful resolution now to all the problems. There's been enough of a bloodbath there. And so, I think you raise a good point, Helen [Helen Thomas, United Press International]. And, yes, I feel strongly that the time for recrimination is over, the time for bloodbaths is over. And I would like to see the various factions get together and come up with recommendations that would lead to a peaceful Afghanistan with no more bloodbaths.

Q. Mr. President, the Soviet Union is calling for an immediate cease-fire in Afghanistan and an embargo on arms shipments. Would you go along with that idea?

The President. Here's one of the complicating factors on that call. There is some concern about what we call stockpiling; and it would not be fair to have tremendous amounts of lethal supplies left behind and then cut off support for resistance and -- thus, leaving an unacceptable imbalance. And so, before one could do anything other than appeal for peaceful resolution, which I've done, one needs to know the real facts on this question, this troublesome question of stockpiling.

Q. So, does that mean that you will continue to aid the rebels?

The President. That means we will do what we need to do to see that there is a peaceful resolution to this question, that one side does not dominate militarily, and we will be encouraging reconciliation.


Q. Mr. President, what is your reaction, sir, to the action by the Central American countries yesterday that appears to undermine the standing of the contras, to say the least, and leave them in a very vulnerable position? And was your administration, as has been reported, caught off-guard on that?

The President. Let me say, Brit [Brit Hume, ABC News], on that one, that there's some positive elements of what's taking place there. There are also some troublesome elements. Positive because the Nicaraguans appear to be taking steps in accord with the Esquipulas agreements; they're talking about national reconciliation and full freedoms, including complete freedom of the press and free and fair elections and an end to subversion. To the degree that rhetoric goes forward and is enacted, that's good. But there's 90 days now in which to finalize arrangements. And what's troubling to me is that claims like this have been made at one time, only to see those claims repudiated -- promises made, promises broken. And so, I think we have to be wary of supporting any positive elements like commitments to democracy and yet say, Wait a minute, let's be sure that we not leave the resistance standing alone, leave them twisting out there without fulfillment of the commitment to democracy on the part of the Sandinistas.

So, in terms of being caught off-guard, we are in the midst of a review of our whole policy there. If you ask me would I have predicted that the five Presidents would have worked out agreement in this detail at this time, I'd have to tell you that, having talked to President Azcona, having our Secretary of State deal with two foreign ministers just recently, I think within the last 10 days, that I wouldn't have said that they'd do exactly what they did do. But as I say, there's some positive elements to it, and there's some troublesome elements.

Q. How does that note of caution, sir, translate into policy and action on your part?

The President. You mean from the future? Work here in the next 90 days with the leaders to see that there's not just some fluffy promises out there but that there's some teeth in the promise of democratization. And that is what has to be done. And so, we are going to keep our resolve to have the people of Nicaragua have what these other countries have there: democracy. And we're talking about freedom of the press, freedom of elections, freedom of worship. And it's fine to spell these things out in generalities, but now let's get down to how we proceed. What does a free and fair election mean? I want to see some certification of the election process. But we've got time now, little bit of time now, in which to make very clear that our resolve, our commitment to democracy is still there.

Q. Mr. President, how do you intend to stand by your commitment to the resistance? And might that mean a request for additional nonlethal aid, at the end of which -- --

The President. It could mean that. It could mean that. But again, I think we've got to work with this process now the best we can. But I don't think anybody would want to suggest that we would leave people with no humanitarian aid. I can't imagine anyone taking that view.

Q. Will you intend to ask Congress to approve of that aid?

The President. Well, we have some time on that, too. But I obviously want to know what the status quo is at the time. But I have every intention of seeing that these people receive humanitarian support, but how that comes about, we'll just have to wait and see.

Appointments and Nominations

Q. Mr. President, have you been dismayed at all at the slow pace of filling jobs in the State Department and, of course, in the Defense Department, elsewhere in your government? Has it slowed you down at all?

The President. I worry a little about it, but not dismayed. The ground rules have changed. I was talking yesterday to one of our appointees who I will leave -- the way you like to put it -- who asked to remain anonymous. And he told me that to fill out the forms required 36 hours, and the forms are different in different departments. I hope that this new Ethics Committee that we've got will take a look at this and try to see if we can't do better. The ground rules have changed from 8 years ago.

And there's one other substantive point here. I don't worry about it as much as I would have if I were President 8 years ago, when we came in on the wake of an administration that I was opposed to and everything. I've come in as President to build on the record of an administration of which not only I was a part of but whose objectives I strongly support. And so, the people that are running the various departments now are people who generally are good people and share my objectives for this country. So, it's not like you're having to worry that your departments are going to be coming out with a lot of last-minute rules and regulations that will be an anathema to everything you believe in.

So, that's a substantive point. The nature of the clearance process is a substantive point. But back to your question, I do worry about it. I am concerned about it. And I'd like to see if we can't speed the system up in some way. We're getting good people to nominate. There used to be a real quick turnaround on what they call a name check, but now, under the new procedures, that takes a lot longer. So, there's some frustrations. I don't want to mislead you, but for the reasons that I gave you, I don't think it's hurting the Government. I think our Cabinet appointments -- I want to get them done as soon as possible, all of them.

Government Ethics

Q. Sir, could we take up a question you said a couple days ago: Why is it that the ethics questions get so complex in practice and yet were so simple in your campaign language? Why is it that straightforward questions of accepting outside income now require a legal opinion?

The President. Well, give me an example of what you mean "straightforward" about outside income. Maybe I can answer it by rhetorical question. Take the case of Lou Sullivan [Secretary of Health and Human Services-designate], who had earned a pension from a medical school, working not for exorbitant sums, as the president of a black medical college. And it is now suggested that -- if he accepts money from a pension that he earned -- that he is doing something illegal. We have other questions of that nature. Some people who are interested in being in the Government find that they have to give up medical benefits that they earned from a major company, lest it be seen that they are beholden to that major company. So, I've set the goal to have high standards, but in doing that, all kinds of cases of this nature are coming out. And I don't think that in those two cases I've given you, if the status quo remained, that that should disqualify somebody. In Lou Sullivan's case, though -- and he can't afford it -- he bends over backwards to avoid the perception that some people in politics and in the media lay on him for accepting benefits from a medical school that he worked his life for.

Q. But Baker was -- --

The President. So, these are different, these are different questions.

Q. Could we ask, however -- the perception is out there. The perception is apparent. It's why -- --

The President. Apparent to what?

Q. Apparent to anyone looking at the situation that acceptance of money in any form is acceptance of money. The question is not whether or not Mr. Sullivan deserved the money. The question is whether or not he could accept it when you had said no members of your Cabinet would accept outside income.

The President. Earned income -- I didn't say outside income. If a person has some trust fund that pays -- blind trust that distributes funds to him, I've never said that. See, I think there are some perception problems that maybe I need to help clear up, and this gives me an opportunity here today to do it. All I say is: I want high ethical standards, but I don't want to have it so it goes so far, bends over so far backwards, that a person that knows something about a subject matter is disqualified from serving, or a person that has some means is disqualified from serving, or a man that worked his heart out building a black medical college is made to feel that there's some perception of immorality if he keeps a pension that he's earned. I worry that I may have created something that's -- certainly I know it needs clarification, and our commission will help do that. And secondly, I hope I haven't created something that just carries things too far. For one day a guy gets a ruling from the Ethics Office that a way of treating with one's asset is acceptable. It's given a stamp of approval. And then because of what you properly call perceptions, a person has to change the ground rules.

Q. But you're not thinking it was wrong for Baker to -- --

The President. No, I said I think he made the right decision. But what I think is wrong to do is to go back in retrospect and have him twisting in the wind out there because we use a 90/90 hindsight on the poor guy when he's gone far beyond what he might have done, and who -- everybody that knows Jim Baker knows that he is highly ethical. But to suggest there's a perception here that is looked at differently today, now, than used to be when he asked for a ruling from the Government Office of Ethics, that he's done something wrong, I do reject that, Helen.

Mr. Fitzwater. We're going to take a couple of more questions, if you have any other subjects.

Interest Rates and the Budget

Q. Are you concerned that the Fed is increasing interest rates at this point? And how much time do you think you have to cut a deal with Congress on budget negotiations?

The President. The best thing to do -- you coupled them just right because if we can get a -- well, I don't think the American people see that, so let me expand a little bit. The best thing to do about interest rates is to get a budget agreement. And in my view, once that's there, particularly if it's along the lines that I have suggested to the Congress, I can almost guarantee you the pressure is going to come off on the interest rates. So, that's the way to solve the problem of concern about higher interest rates. The interest rates will be lower if we can promptly get a budget agreement.

So, do I worry about it? I don't see the inflationary pressures as so bad or enough to warrant a substantially higher interest rate. I don't see that. I've looked at the economic numbers. And people, I think, like to try always -- whoever's President -- drive a wedge between the President and the Chairman of the Fed. It's one of the best fights in town. You all love it. All politicians love it. All bankers like it. All editorialists for the Wall Street Journal love it. But I want to avoid that because we aren't far apart. And I will keep in touch in my own way. Our top people here will with the Chairman of the Fed, for whom we all have great respect. And maybe we'll get into a fight down the road. But I don't think it's at hand, and I don't think Greenspan and I are far apart. And I think he would also confirm that.

NATO Unity

Q. Mr. President, West Germany wants to postpone the modernization of the shorter range missiles. Obviously, this is not the American position. They want also to open negotiations with the Soviets on that. How do you respond to that? If you don't agree with that, are you concerned by the unity of NATO?

The President. I would respond to it this way: The Secretary of State is talking to all the NATO leaders; he'll be back in town over this weekend. I will sit down here in this chair and talk to him about what he has found. In the meantime, I am inclined to feel that we are far closer to West Germany than the public perceptions might be. And I have been in touch with Helmut Kohl [Chancellor, Federal Republic of Germany], and there have been opportunities for him to express to me inordinate concerns on this question. And other German leaders have been here recently, and the Secretary of State's been there. So, I would use this opportunity to shoot down the concept that there are major divisions between ourselves and the Federal Republic on this question.

But I'm not worried about NATO unity. You always worry that you have your act totally together, and that's one of the reasons I wanted these early consultations. And then, I think now, as a result of our Secretary of State's wonderful trip over there -- and I say wonderful because he's touched a lot of bases and the cables are most encouraging along the lines of NATO unity -- that having said that, that the mood is pretty good. I don't worry too much about divisions in NATO, and I do then feel that we will be in a position with a united NATO to move forward in consultation with the Soviet Union. That's the next step, and we have certain leadership responsibilities that all of us here are prepared to accept in that regard.

Q. One last question -- --

The President. Ann [Ann McDaniel, Newsweek], and then Brit. And then I'll quit.

Iran Arms and Contra Aid Controversy

Q. It appears that the Oliver North trial will go forward next week now. Are you aware of secrets so damaging to our national security that might come out in that trial that would be so damaging that you would ask the Attorney General to halt the prosecution?

The President. I think the Attorney General knows everything I know, and I think he's handled it very well.

Q. Are you concerned about the trial going forward? Do you think national security can be -- --

The President. Not under the existing agreements.

Q. Do you think the trial -- --

The President. I think Dick Thornburgh took a very difficult question and balanced interests and has worked out an agreement that hopefully is workable. But we'll see, because there are legitimate national security interests that he is obliged to protect. And he understands this, but he also understands that the judicial system should be operative and the trial should go forward. And I think we'll just say that all parties have worked towards that end, and it looks like agreement has been reached.

Yes, last one -- Brit?

President's Budget Proposal

Q. Some congressional Democrats are now saying, sir, that you have outlined and gotten some considerable credit for a lot of spending increases while leaving open the question of where cuts would be made, particularly in an area where a kind of net freeze is being asked for. And they are saying that you really have been vague and have left it to them to do the dirty work. How do you react to that?

The President. Slowly -- [laughter] -- and very carefully. I don't think that is the informed opinion of the key leaders in Congress today. And the reason I say that is I think that Dick Darman [Chairman, Office of Management and Budget] and Nick Brady [Secretary of the Treasury] and our Chief of Staff, John Sununu, have all done a good job in not only presenting broad parameters to the Congress but have gone into a considerable amount of detail with them. And I would readily say, yes, there's a lot of negotiation that needs to be done to get all the T's crossed and every I dotted. But I don't think, Brit, that that's a commonly held view of the leadership. But if I said it was the commonly held view of the Democratic leadership -- I know it's not of the Republican -- then we will redouble our efforts to be sure they understand that there's no validity to that.

But having said that, yes, there's a lot more detail that has to be hammered out and ironed out, and we will work with them to satisfy their interest and to find out what they want to do. It's a two-way street. And so, I'm going to start working here, getting together meetings with the leaders down the road fairly soon, and we'll have a chance to explore that. If some feel that way, it would be a good opportunity to discuss it. So, it's going better than I thought it would, and I'm pleased generally with the reception.

I said ahead of time that I didn't expect everybody would jump up and down and say this was the greatest thing since sliced bread. But for the most part, I think it's fair to point out there has been a responsible look given this budget. The Republicans have generally been enthusiastic, some reservations on the part of some. The Democrats, though not endorsing it quite as much, have seen some positive direction and some positive objectives in that budget. And so, I've been pleased with the reception to that, and I've been pleased with the reception of the savings and loan.

Both of these two were major -- I won't say hurdles -- but major things that we had to accomplish, and I think we have. We've got a good proposal out there on the savings and loan, and we've got a sound budget proposal that is not meeting with everybody's acceptance and -- or put it this way, with anybody saying what we've suggested is perfect. But there's enough solid food for thought there for the executive branch to be in a very sound position when we go into an open negotiation that we want.

And it gets right back to the overall economy. It's important that we go forward and go forward soon. And so much of the economy today is on perception as opposed to reality. This recovery is real; business is good. The insured deposits of depositors in savings and loan and banks are solid -- dollar good, strong. But there are some perceptions out there that can best be turned around by a quick, or relatively quick, resolution of the budget question. It's the firm projecting down of the deficit that will result in lower interest rates which will guarantee continuation of this, the longest expansion in our history, and continue expansion at lower rates of interest.

So, I'm not euphorically optimistic. I'm certainly not pessimistic. And I think we're off to a pretty good start. And I credit not just the Republican leaders on the Hill but the spirit that the Democratic leaders have demonstrated. And I've been very pleased with it. And I've had an opportunity to tell them that.

Gun Control

Q. Mr. President, even though there's been a cutoff, there is something called guns that is so rampant in this country -- --

The President. Helen, it's been a great pleasure. The last question -- --

Q. Why won't you answer the question, because this is one of the most clearly -- --

Mr. Fitzwater. Thank you.

The President. What was your question?

Q. The question is: Are you going to exert any leadership in trying to forestall these -- --

The President. Do you know that there are laws on the book outlining the import of AK - 47's -- automatic -- --

Q. No, I didn't.

The President. Well, see, there's a fact. So, where does that lead you? You already had laws that prohibit the import of fully automated AK - 47's. That law is on the books. So, are we talking about law enforcement? Are we talking about -- --

Q. We're talking about semiautomatic AK - 47's, sir. We're talking about semiautomatic guns.

The President. What do you mean by semi?

Q. I mean no cocking, pull the trigger, the gun fires each time I pull the trigger.

The President. Look, if you're suggesting that every pistol that can do that or every rifle should be banned, I would strongly oppose that. I would strongly go after the criminals who use these guns. But I'm not about to suggest that a semi-automated hunting rifle be banned. Absolutely not. Am I opposed to AK - 47's, fully automated? Am I in favor of supporting the law that says they shouldn't come in here? Yes. But Helen, with all her experience, didn't even know it was there. Nor did I until I looked it up. [Laughter]

Q. I don't know how you -- when did you find out? I don't know how you can read the paper every day -- 13 deaths on Valentine's Day.

The President. Exactly, which concerns me enormously.

Q. What will you do -- --

The President. When you let a guy out of jail to commit a crime like this, it's outrageous. Two of these people were people that already had -- have -- help.

Q. So, you think it's okay for people to have guns?

The President. To have guns? Yes, I do. Do I think it's all right for people to have fully automatic AK - 47's? No, I think the law should be -- --

Q. Sir, the issue is the -- in Stockton, that was a semiauto. That was not a fully automatic weapon.

The President. Well, but I've answered your question on that question. I'm not about to propose a ban on service .45's or something like that.

Q. On semiautomatics -- right?

The President. No, I'm not about to do that. And I think the answer is the criminal. Do more with the criminal. Look, the States have a lot of laws on these things. Let them enforce them. It's hard, very hard, to do. But that's my position, and I'm not going to change it.

Q. Is there nothing you can do about the murder capital of the United States? As the number one resident?

The President. Well, we need the help of all the press to do something about it.

Q. When did you find out that they were banned? Today? [Laughter]

The President. Slightly before you did, put it that way -- slightly before you did.

Note: The exchange began at 2:24 p.m. in the Oval Office at the White House. Marlin Fitzwater was the President's Press Secretary. In his remarks the President referred to Patrick Purdy who, armed with a semiautomatic AK - 47, shot and killed six schoolchildren on a playground in Stockton, CA, on January 17.

George Bush, Remarks on Afghanistan and a Question-and-Answer Session With Reporters Online by Gerhard Peters and John T. Woolley, The American Presidency Project

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