George Bush photo

The President's News Conference

January 25, 1990

The President. Two subjects I'd like to address myself to: First, I want to acknowledge the vote in the Senate upholding my veto this afternoon and reaffirming our commitment to Chinese students in this country, as well as the goal of improving relations with China. No Chinese student in this country is going to be sent back against his or her will. And we will continue to urge the People's Republic of China to recognize the human rights of its citizens, to participate in the affairs of the world community. And I do want to express my personal thanks to the leadership of the Republican Party in the Senate -- Senator Dole, Senator Simpson -- who lead this effort with courage and determination. And a special thanks to all those Members who voted for the values of justice and human freedom that I believe were at stake in this question.

Secondly, this morning I called President Endara of Panama to assure him of our continuing support of his efforts to establish democracy in Panama. Part of this effort involves the establishment of a healthy economy, and I'm deeply impressed with his commitment to reform Panama's economy. And based on this commitment and the report I received from Larry Eagleburger [Deputy Secretary of State] and John Robson [Deputy Secretary of the Treasury], with us here, I informed President Endara that we'd arrived at an economic assistance package to help assist Panama in its economic recovery.

Our plan, valued at about $1 billion, includes $500 million in humanitarian assistance for housing, emergency public works, business assistance, loans, guarantees, and export opportunities, and then $500 million in an additional assistance package for balance of payment support, public investment, and economic restructuring.

The Vice President will review the details of this plan with President Endara on his visit to Panama. We're going to work closely with the Congress on this package to ensure its prompt implementation. The economic challenges that Panama faces are great, but we will work with the people to build a prosperous, democratic nation.

I've just met again with Secretaries Robson and Eagleburger, and they believe, given the history in Panama on the business side, that this economic assistance can, indeed, result in the short run in a vastly improved economic situation.

China-U.S. Relations

Q. Mr. President, isn't it about time that you told the American people what were the results of two secret missions to China, whether you got any kind of promise from Beijing for loosening up and becoming a more tolerant society, and will this victory lead you to trying to lift the sanctions against China?

The President. Well, I think I addressed myself to that yesterday, but let me repeat: I was very pleased at their lifting of martial law; I was very pleased at the release of 573 people from jail in a kind of an amnesty. I've said that these weren't all the steps that need to be taken. I'm very pleased that they've stopped harassing the United States Mission there, our Embassy in Beijing. I'm very pleased that they've lightened up on the areas where I think we can really move things forward, and that is the Peace Corps and the Fulbright [student] exchanges.

So, this was all part of the debate on the Hill. And I must say that I think that the fact that they had made those moves carried some weight with some of the Senators.

Q. Is that the promise that you were given? I mean, they say now that martial law is really -- --

The President. There were no promises. I'm looking for action, not words.

Q. Well, how about the sanctions?

The President. That's the third question, and -- what sanctions? Which part of the sanctions?

Q. Military and technical assistance and so forth.

The President. Well, we're looking at the whole performance scale, and I expect they are, too. But I'm very, very pleased with the results on the Hill today.

Q. Mr. President, out of 535 Members of Congress, 62 supported you on this veto. Do you view that as a mandate for your policies?

The President. Yes, because you've got to give disproportionate weight to how the executive branch feels. We're an equal branch. So, you add to that the support on the Hill -- we come out more than equal.

Q. And does it give you any support for new initiatives toward China?

The President. The thing I like about it, given the mournful predictions of some a couple of weeks ago, is that it gives me the confidence that I'm going to go forward the way I think is correct here. And I've had a lot of chance to talk to people that voted with us and some that didn't, and I understand their sensitivities. And I vow to do a better job of informing them as these things develop, as to what it is we're intending. But I'm very, very pleased with the result, for reasons that I'm sure everybody out here can understand.

Q. Mr. President, back to the Chinese students for a moment. Does your commitment that no Chinese student would be sent back against his or her will -- does that run absolutely, or is that something that will run until such time as you feel that China has changed its ways in some way that meets your approval?

The President. Against his or her will -- --

Q. Ever?

The President. -- -- is the controlling statement, yes.

Assistance for Panama

Q. Mr. President, on the aid to Panama, some assessments say $1 billion is only a fraction of what it will need to restore the effects down there. What is your assessment, and what are people saying? Is this the first step toward what?

The President. Well, I'm basing my judgment on what President Endara said and on the recommendations of the economic mission that went there. And President Endara seemed very pleased at this. I said to him, "If there is additional categories in which we can be helpful, please let me know." But I think he was very pleased, and I think both Larry and John feel that it is a very good step. Whether it's the last step or not, I don't know. We've got to see how that private sector responds and how the economic recovery goes forward. But I wouldn't say this is the end of the road in terms of what we can do to help them.

Q. But is there a full assessment of what the total cost will be?

The President. Well, I think they feel that this is -- let's go here, see what happens, and then take another look. Some may come up with higher figures, but this is what we think is a good and full program to give them the help they need right now.

Q. Mr. President, have you been personally briefed on the exact number of people left homeless as a result of the U.S. invasion of Panama? And when specifically, sir, can they expect to get new homes to replace those destroyed?

The President. I think these programs will give instant -- or as close to instant relief as we can hope for here. In fact, there's a provision -- I'd like to ask Larry and John to take a couple of questions, after I bail out on this, that will address themselves in more specificity because I don't have the exact number there. But I would like to help as best I can with the reconstruction.

War on Drugs

Q. I know you're talking about foreign policy, but may I ask you a drug question since you were talking about that today, though?

The President. Yes, sir.

Q. Given the fact that in your Inaugural Address you promised to stop the scourge of drugs, and given the fact that today you told the newspaper publishers that drugs was at the top of your agenda, is this going to be the primary test for your administration -- in its first 4 years at least -- the primary domestic test, assuming the economy doesn't fall apart? Is this the big one?

The President. I think it's the big one, and I think it's the test not for the administration but for every community in the country, every State, every local government -- for the people. And somebody asked me, if you had to set goals, changes in the education system or -- but where could you most readily hope to see results? I would say in the antinarcotics fight. I think it's really that kind of priority.

China-U.S. Relations

Q. Mr. President, going back to China. You gave us an accounting of why General Scowcroft [Assistant to the President for National Security Affairs] went in December, but I wonder if I could ask you to go back to July? Could you give us an accounting of that trip? What happened? What did you learn? Why did you send him then?

The President. To make clear to the Chinese leadership that the relationship is important, but that it could not go forward until certain changes had taken place. And that, in sum, is what it was about.

Q. Was it your initiative, or theirs, sir?

The President. Mine. Mine, I should say.

Q. Back to the override vote. Does this suggest to you -- your victory today -- that if you can win here, you can win on anything with Congress?

The President. No, because I think we had a very good case here. If I took a case up there that wasn't any good, why, I'd probably get beat. But this one I think people were willing to listen -- some that had been positioned opposed to it, opposed to my position. And I think when they heard the full argument, I think they decided, well, we should support the President on this one.

Q. Could you extrapolate a little bit on that, Mr. President? Given that you've pointed out repeatedly that you have done administratively what Congress ought to do legislatively, why was it so important to win this vote?

The President. Well, I said yesterday -- I mean, for several reasons. One reason -- I think there was a political ingredient in it, and nobody likes to get pounded on that. And also, I think -- from a foreign policy standpoint -- I think it's better to do it this way. I think there's a trust factor that hopefully will result in changes that are satisfactory to the American people and to me -- a trust factor in the administration. And I hope that I can use that, having won this now, to further the kinds of things that I think will help move China forward.

You see, I think that the unilateral decision by President Nixon to send Kissinger on a secret mission to establish contact in days when there were far darker in China's U.S. relations was a good decision. And I think the decisions I've made are good decisions. I can understand the controversy, and I can understand why there wasn't a unanimous endorsement. But I view it as a very good step. I will pledge right here to work with the Congress. I love the way the debate ended with both Senator Mitchell and Dole saluting each other for the way in which the matter was discussed. And I think that's a good signal for the political fights that may lie ahead.

Q. If I could follow up on David's [David Hoffman, Washington Post] question: You said that Mr. Scowcroft's trip in July -- the Chinese were told certain things had to happen for the relationship to go forward. Can you elaborate on those things and tell us if they've happened?

The President. No, because I think that we've seen China take certain steps. In diplomacy, I don't think you make progress by throwing down a list of things, telling somebody else how to behave. I do think you adhere to your own principles, and I think sometimes you have to undertake the kind of diplomacy that I engaged in here to reiterate principles and to explain the severity of problems to people. But if you do it publicly all the time and you do it so you're painting somebody into a corner, I don't think you get results. And that's why I did what I've done.

Q. Is the status of Mr. Fang [Chinese dissident] one of those things that needs to be resolved? And can you give us any information on that?

The President. It certainly is a matter that I would like to see resolved.

Q. Mr. President, on capital gains you've pointed out on several occasions that because of parliamentary rules you've been thwarted. You've asked that Congress give the majority the right to exercise their will by passing capital gains. Now, in this case, you technically won on this veto because of parliamentary rules, but the vast majority voted against you on this. Don't you believe that that is, in fact, a repudiation of your Chinese policy?

The President. No, I don't see a parallel. This is executive branch. You are equal with the legislative branch. The whole ball game is entitled to have the veto process. Part of the election is about the veto process. It's not a question of whether -- but when you have a majority of Senators up there doing one thing, that's fine, provided the President agrees with it. But that's what I'm saying.

Q. But I'm talking specifically about what Congress did over the last couple of days.

The President. Surprised you, didn't it?

Q. The majority of Congressmen in both the House and the Senate voted against you on this issue. Do you believe that that's a repudiation by Congress of your Chinese policy?

The President. No. They're entitled to do their thing, and the executive's entitled to do its own thing. And it worked, and we're going to stay right on track. And I think the process worked very well. I don't view it as a repudiation at all.

Q. Mr. President, I understand that Transportation Secretary Skinner was among those making calls on this vote.

The President. I hope so.

Q. Well, that suggests a little pork-barrel persuasion as well. Was there something more than just the pure -- --

The President. Highways in China? What are you talking about?

Q. Well, I mean, was it just the pure merits of the case that won the day, or was it win one for the -- --

The President. I think there were some politics in it. I think there was politics in it.

Q. Both sides?

Q. On both sides?

The President. Yes, both sides.

Q. That you used?

The President. Yes, because some of them said, look, let's stand with the President. Some that may have had a slight difference of emphasis on our side -- and clearly there was plenty on the other side when you don't see one single vote come across the aisle -- not one, not one.

Q. Did you make specific promises to anyone on help on any other issue?

The President. No.

Q. Did you play hardball?

The President. Softball -- great, big, fat one coming over the plate. Excuse me.

Q. You spoke of a trust factor. I wonder if I can apply that to the American people, sir. What can you say to convince the people that the missions to China weren't secret simply to avoid the overwhelming public opposition to them?

The President. I say I think what I'm doing is correct, and I say I think I was elected to do in foreign policy what I think was correct. And you have the checks and balances of the Congress. They had a shot to say that it wasn't correct in this instance. And so, I say that I feel encouraged that the process worked out this way, and I point back to the original relationship with China. And I don't believe you would have ever had it if there hadn't been some secret diplomacy.

Q. If I could ask the question again, sir -- --

The President. You might. You'll get the same answer if you ask the same question.

Q. Were the missions not kept secret to avoid the overwhelming public opposition to them?

The President. No. The missions were kept secret because I believe this is the best way in dealing with China to effect change -- positive change.

Q. Mr. President, as you're aware, China issued an angry statement overnight over the House action yesterday, referring to their vote as interference in China's affairs. You warned yesterday about China's action if your veto was not sustained. What I don't understand is why China would -- since you've promised to do the same things administratively that the Pelosi bill would have done -- why China would regard that as interference, but you doing it they wouldn't?

The President. I think they would see it as a further public slap at a time when they feel some steps have been taken that are positive. And I think that is probably what -- but let there be no mistake about it, I'm sure they're not very happy with my Executive order. I mean, they're entitled to their view, and we're entitled to ours. And I have a mandate to protect these students, and China, as you know, has a very different view on it. But I think that's the only thing I can think of.

Middle East Peace Process

Q. Let me ask on a different topic: on the Middle East. You've had 3 press conferences in 2 days now, and there's been no questions at all about the Middle East. Is this a signal that your administration and that the American public as a whole is disgusted with the slow pace of events toward the peace process?

The President. No, because I don't write the questions for the press conference. I mean, I can't help it if I had no questions. But I don't think anything in the status quo should be interpreted as a lack of interest in trying to be helpful on the talks going, if that's what you mean. In fact, there is discussion going on. We had discussions with our most recent visitor, President Salih. I've just concluded a meeting with Senator Specter, who is just back from Syria and from Iraq, and there's a lot going on. I wish I could tell you I felt that there was demonstrable progress. But no, please don't assume because I have addressed myself in the statements to the China question and the question of Panama or the question of our domestic agenda that we have lost interest in trying to be a catalyst in the Middle East.

Q. Do you think one side is being more recalcitrant than the other?

The President. I don't think it would be helpful to quantify recalcitrance. I think what we ought to do is what Jim Baker is trying to do right now, and that is to facilitate the talks, to get them started.

China-U.S. Relations and Chinese Student Relief Legislation

Q. Mr. President, with this victory in the Senate, do you anticipate sending General Scowcroft or perhaps some other envoy back to China to talk again, perhaps in open this time?

The President. I'm not sure Scowcroft and Eagleburger want any more grief like this. [Laughter] There are no plans to do -- let me be very clear, again. And I'm not dodging your question. One, there are no plans for anything of that nature. Secondly, this was my idea, for good or for bad. And these are seasoned diplomats and seasoned people in national security, and we talk about these matters. And when the President makes a decision, why, they do what I suggest here. And so, I don't want to be doing anything other than expressing total confidence in them and in their mission, and I know it's been controversial.

But I'm not somebody that's always looking for a way to do something in secret. When I see, though -- back to the question I was asked -- that in my judgment a quiet conversation might lead to progress, I hope I will continue to feel I have the flexibility to pursue such conversation.

Q. Mr. President, when you sent your memorandum of disapproval on the China students bill, you characterized it as a pocket veto and said that the constitutional provision precluded it becoming law. Yet we haven't heard you object to the fact that the Congress took the vote to override. Have you changed your mind on that?

The President. I need a lawyer on that one. I don't -- --

Q. I'd certainly like to follow it up somehow.

The President. I think you should get -- --

General Scowcroft. You need a lawyer.

The President. I really do. [Laughter] It's technical, and I can't -- --

Q. Some people said that by sending the message back, you undid your pocket veto and actually gave them a veto to override. But I don't think the White House accepts that, and I'd certainly like to get an answer to it.

The President. Yes, let me get you an answer, because we're not seeking to do some clever parliamentary maneuver to have people have to vote on this question when I would rather have seen the matter lie dormant.

Q. You indicated in the beginning of your statement that you feel you do have a mandate now on this China policy. A lot of people have criticized it as a secret policy. You also indicated that perhaps you might do more to keep Congress informed. Why not keep them informed of these secret missions, and what do you plan to do in terms of keeping them informed?

The President. Well, I think we do. We bend over backwards to keep people informed in the Congress. And I think once in a while there is something that is done quietly, and then when it is proper, why, we'll give a thorough and full briefing. And I think in this one, when this matter was disclosed by us, we immediately briefed Congress on what it was we had intended to do, why we did it. And so, I don't think there's any real lack of consultation. In fact, I pride myself on the fact that we have had outstanding consultation. And I've had these leaders down here over and over again -- bipartisan -- and I'm going to continue to do that.

Q. The July trip, Mr. President -- it was 6 months before Congress found out about it.

The President. That's right.

Q. Why not inform the people?

The President. Because we were working on some initiatives, and in my judgment, it was better that it be quiet. And I've cited some examples in history, particularly the China trip, the opening to China, that I think was best served by the way it was done.

Q. Mr. President, as you analyze the outcome today and the vote itself, how much of it was a vote on the Chinese student issue, and how much of it do you perceive to be a vote on your overall approach to China?

The President. Or on the political side -- I don't know. I don't know how you measure it. But I do think this: As I had an opportunity to discuss it with individuals, and as our team did, I think there was much more understanding of the merits than had been granted originally. And I think we'd all agree -- everybody here -- that a couple of weeks ago it just was kind of written off and getting pounded on the merits as well as on the politics. So, the consultations and the discussions to try to get support for this, I think, have increased understanding even by those that didn't vote for me.

At least I think they understand that there were some merits to what I was trying to do. They may have disagreed with it. Some may have agreed with what is the thrust of some of these questions, on the secrecy question. Some may have felt that legislation is better than the executive branch authority doing it. But I think I was given the benefit of the doubt by some in terms of knowledge of the importance of a relationship with China. I think I've hopefully dissuaded some in terms of some of the propaganda on the other side -- that I didn't care about human rights.

So, it was an interesting development here: taking a project that many had considered extraordinarily difficult and then seeing it resolve itself in this way. But there's no intention on my part to crow about it. I mean, it was a very close vote, and it worked out better than many had felt it would. And now we've got to go forward. Tomorrow it's something else. I'm not going to live there on this thing forever.

Q. If I may follow: Was there not a broader issue in regard to the China policy here than just the situation with the students?

The President. I'm not sure -- --

Q. Was this not a congressional mandate or a Senate mandate on the way you've handled the overall China policy more than just the student issue?

The President. Some of it was. Some of it was political. We'd already accomplished by Executive order what the Pelosi bill was going to do, so some of it was a feeling that maybe it would be better to lock it in on legislation. Some of it was they wanted to make a statement. There's a lot of reasons. You have to just ask those who voted as they did.

Q. Mr. President, a lot of the emotion over your China policy had to do with the famous Scowcroft toast on videotape. It angered a lot of people to see him toasting people responsible for the Tiananmen Square massacre. Will you say that at least that part of it was a mistake, that if -- --

The President. No, because when you go to China, that is -- I don't know of anybody that's been there that doesn't engage in that activity. And if you read the full context of what was said, I think it was a very unfair shot. But I agree with you -- some people used that as something that was outrageous. But they ought to go over to China and just understand how it works.

Q. If people had only known that he went over there and that he had talks, do you think the public reaction would have been different than it was when they saw him toasting on television?

The President. No, I think the people that are outraged by it and expressed themselves were concerned about my whole approach to it, I think. But I can say that I think that it may have affected one or two. I don't really know the answer to that one.


Q. Back to Panama, sir. The election last May was the one that never really resulted in a full count because of General Noriega, yet that's the same election on which the Endara government is basing its legitimacy. Is it time, sir, for another election in Panama?

The President. Well, I think, fortunately, the Endara government has been endorsed by the Electoral Commission. They were kind of diverted from their normal course of business by Mr. Noriega a while back. But I think that's a matter for the Panamanians to decide. I think it would be a little bit outrageous for us to come charging in and tell them when they ought to have an election.

Q. But what is your opinion on it?

The President. Well, I'm not going to have an opinion. I want this to be the Panamanian system. The emphasis from now on ought to be Panama's democracy, Panama determination, let Panama figure out -- and then we'll try to help, or if they ask for criticism or suggestions, fine. But I don't want to be appearing that we are trying to run the new democracy in Panama from up here. That would be the worst thing we could do.

El Salvador

Q. On another topic, several key Democratic Senators say they don't believe President Cristiani has control of the military any longer. What is your response to that? They are also drafting legislation which would kill future military aid. Do you think you will be as successful in defeating that package as you were today?

The President. I hope so because Cristiani is trying hard. And I think there is some evidence that he doesn't control all his military. The very fact he's trying to bring some to justice who at least have been accused of wrongdoing demonstrates that. But the man was elected -- certifiably free elections. He is trying very hard. He has taken some extraordinarily courageous and tough steps, and he has my full support.

U.S. Military Action in Panama

Q. My question is about Mexico and Venezuela and other countries in South America that have been offended by the invasion in Panama.

The President. Yes.

Q. I wonder if you have spoken with their leaders and used some of your personal diplomacy to convince them that you didn't intend any -- and won't be invading any other countries anytime soon. [Laughter]

The President. Well, I haven't given them my invasion list, but I have -- [laughter] -- no, but seriously, it's a very important question diplomatically; it's a good question. First place, as of today, because of what's happened since the fighting began, things are better. Some of it may be just that time heals. Secondly, I think that they have been informed -- some by me, mail, phone calls when these actions took place, and our State Department and our representatives -- as to what our intention was, what the cause was, what we're doing. They've seen a lot of forces come out now, which I think is helpful. There's a history. And anytime you undertake an engagement like I authorized, you've got to assess what the down side is because of the history.

But, Jessica [Jessica Lee, USA Today], I am pleased with where we are now. And I have not engaged in the last week or so in a lot of diplomatic activity with my friends, but I've sent enough communications that I think they know what my heartbeat is on this. And I hope now, when they saw what happened with the Panamanian people, that that made a profound impression on them. And they've seen Endara go forward, and they've seen the stamp of approval given to his democracy. And they see that now, as of today, that we're determined to help not just with rhetoric but with a means of recovery. So, things are better -- and I think, given the action that I authorized, in pretty good shape. I'm not suggesting I have no diplomacy ahead.

Chinese Student Relief Legislation

Q. Mr. President, it was a surprise victory to start the year. Will this transfer to other issues, and is this what someone once called big Mo, momentum, starting off 1990? [Laughter]

The President. Listen, I learned a lesson not to talk about that. And I learned it the hard way -- took it right on the chin. And I'm coming in here in the spirit of cooperation, and excuse me if the adrenaline flew on one or two of the questions because things didn't look too bright a little while back. But, no, this is too serious a business, especially as it relates to this China policy. And so, I'm not in a mode of talking about momentum or something of that nature.

I do think because of the way it worked out it's going to be helpful in reaching accommodation in the Senate and in the House on certain of our objectives. By that I mean I offer out that hand of cooperation, but it is a two-way street. I simply cannot accept legislation that is opposed to principles I believe in.

So, I don't know where it will fall out, but there is -- and I promise you, I don't come in here with some sense of gloating or anything of that nature at all. It was too tough a vote for a lot of my friends on both sides of the aisle.

Ellen [Ellen Warren, Knight-Ridder Newspapers], last one.

Assistance for Panama

Q. Mr. President, in announcing $1 billion for Panama -- that's an awful lot of money. So, what countries are going to get less money as a result of our generosity to Panama?

The President. Well, there will be offsets; and we will at the appropriate time, which is fairly soon, tell the Congress where we think those offsets should come from. But let me reiterate my philosophical approval for the Bob Dole position, which is to give the President more flexibility on this concept of earmarking [foreign aid].

I've boycotted the back benches, so we're going to end with this one right here.


Q. Mr. President, do you agree with the NAACP and other organizations that there is a rising tide of racism in this country?

The President. I had a long talk with some of the executives of the NAACP the other day, and they expressed to me their concerns. And I share their concerns, but I like to think that there isn't a rising tide. I think that there are some very ugly incidents, and if I can use this platform, the White House, to speak out against that bigotry and against that ugliness, perhaps it will help. But I will tell you that several of those leaders felt that there was a growing pattern of racism, and as your question said, a rising tide. I don't know that I agree with it, but I do agree there is some very ugly incidents lately, and we all ought to do what we can to make clear that is not the American way.

Thank you, I really do have to go. Thank you. You guys have been stiffed, but I'll get you next time, I promise.

Note: The President's 34th news conference began at 3:24 p.m. in the Briefing Room at the White House.

George Bush, The President's News Conference Online by Gerhard Peters and John T. Woolley, The American Presidency Project

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