THE WHITE HOUSE
Office of the Press Secretary
PRESS BRIEFING BY DEE DEE MYERS
The Briefing Room
1:43 P.M. EDT
MS. MYERS: (in progress) -- there are a number of senators coming today. I don't have a -- is there anybody --
Q Mike, mike --
MS. MYERS: Is it on? I'll post a list. I think there are five -- four or five coming in today.
Q On the budget process or on something else?
MS. MYERS: On budget process. Senator Lautenberg, Senator Deconcini -- I can't remember the others.
MS. MYERS: Separately.
Q About what time will they be here?
MS. MYERS: I think some of them may have already come. I think they've been coming -- yes, Deconcini was here earlier, and they'll be coming sort of --
Q Do they have specific concerns or --
MS. MYERS: Yes, I think they do have specific concerns.
Q And that's why they're coming.
MS. MYERS: Yes -- about what specifically their concerns are, but --
Q They're meeting with the President.
MS. MYERS: They're meeting with the President in sort of 20-minute blocks.
Q Dee Dee, do you, in fact, plan to put out some kind of Travel Office probe this week?
MS. MYERS: I don't think we have a hard timeline on it. But, yes, we will make the results of the internal investigation public.
Q And who is -- we thought that McLarty and Panetta were just doing this. Who, in fact, is conducting the --
MS. MYERS: They are -- I think Mack is much more involved in it day to day than Leon, since Leon's been very preoccupied with the budget process; although both Mr. McLarty and Mr. Panetta will review the results before they're made public. And any questions that they, they might send staff back to get better answers.
Q But he's presumably not doing all the nitty gritty work --
MS. MYERS: He's not doing the interviews, no.
Q Who's doing that?
MS. MYERS: John Podesta, among others.
Q Didn't you announce that Podesta and Todd --
MS. MYERS: Todd is also working on it. Todd works for Tony Podesta -- I mean, for John Podesta. Tony, John, the Podesta brothers. (Laughter.)
Q go back to the senators. Whose initiation are these meetings? Is it on the President's --
MS. MYERS: Well, I think that each of the senators who's coming in today expressed concerns about some aspect of the process. I don't know whether they specifically initiated it or whether somebody on the President's staff responded to those concerns. But I think we identified them as having particular concerns.
Q Would you be able to characterize --
Q What other concerns specifically, do you know?
MS. MYERS: I don't want to get into the details of the meetings.
Q Has the President called other members of this family to try to sort out what they think about the brother, or the half-brother?
MS. MYERS: He has spoken to his mother. And I don't -- I don't know whether he's spoken to anybody else. I know he talked to his mother. He placed a call to Leon -- the other Leon -- Ritzenthaler yesterday. He called him both at his home in California and tried to reach at his hotel in New York; has not heard back from him. I think he said in the photo op that he might try to reach him again in a couple of days. And if he does talk to him, he'll put out a statement of some kind.
Q Well, two questions. One, we have always heard throughout history here how wonderful the White House operators are, they can find someone anywhere. Is he trying to make these calls himself, not through a White House operator?
MS. MYERS: No, I don't know for sure, but I would imagine that the calls were placed through the White House operator. But I think that Mr. Ritzenthaler just was not in his hotel room. And I don't know whether the White House operators have ever been able to track down people on the streets of New York City.
Q But he obviously has seen him, hasn't he? He's seen him on television.
MS. MYERS: But, no, he left a message for him, and I think expects to speak to him --
Q Let me follow up, what is his operating assumption at this point?
MS. MYERS: I think -- I don't know that he has one. I think that's something that's personal to him. And if at some point he feels comfortable expanding on it, he'll do that. I don't think it's appropriate for me to say anymore.
Q there's skepticism that this person is his halfbrother, is that true?
MS. MYERS: Well, I don't -- I mean, I don't know that the facts in this are completely clear, but certainly this gentleman has presented a birth certificate and other things. I think the President would like to talk to him. And I think his feelings about that beyond that are personal. And if he feels comfortable expanding on it at some point, I think he can do that. But it's not really my place.
Q Based on what he knows, does he think that this guy is his half-brother?
MS. MYERS: Again, that's something that you'll have to ask him.
Q He saw him on television, did he?
MS. MYERS: I don't know whether he saw him or has just read accounts of it. But as he said during the photo op, he's sort of been impressed by his humility and the way he's handled this whole episode.
Q Dee Dee, this morning, Mr. Ritzenthaler said that he had written to then-Governor Clinton during the campaign. Do you know whether he had actually seen those letters or --
MS. MYERS: No, I don't believe the President ever saw the letters, although they were received at the campaign. I think it was just one letter.
Q Do you know why he didn't see them? And what other similar type letters did the President get, people claiming to be family members?
MS. MYERS: Yes, I don't have a specific accounting, but it was -- there were a number of letters received by the campaign from people claiming to be relatives of the President. I don't think that's uncommon for people who become well-known, and particularly in a short period of time. But I don't know all the specific details. You know, of course, the President -- or then-candidate and Governor Clinton didn't see all the mail that was received at the headquarters. We were receiving literally thousands of pieces of mail a week. So I don't know the exact chronology of what happened with this letter.
Q Did this letter include the birth certificate or marriage license? And did any other letters --
MS. MYERS: Mr. Ritzenthaler said it did; and I haven't seen the exact document.
Q If that's the case, do you know that wouldn't have been forwarded to the candidate if someone actually -- specific -- sends him documentation of his claim?
MS. MYERS: I don't. I don't know.
Q Who made that decision in the campaign? Was that Betsy Wright?
MS. MYERS: I think Betsy's commented on it. I'd have to refer you to her for specifically how she handled it. Again, I don't know of the exact tick-tock. I do know that the letter was received. I don't who saw it. I know the President did not see it.
Q There was talk about how -- during the campaign there was talk -- of other relatives coming forward -- do know if this has been a Clinton family thing that they have talked about -- whether they had relatives -- (laughter).
MS. MYERS: What are you saying? No, I do think there was some -- this is obviously a very personal issue. And it's a very difficult issue, I think, particularly under the circumstances. And it's a -- and now to have it unfold in such a public way, I think, is difficult. And so I think the less said about it -- I mean, I think at some point we'll try to find out the details of the letter. I think there's clearly some interest in that and what sort of course it may have taken at the headquarters. But beyond that, in terms of the President and how he feels about it, I think we'll just leave those untouched.
Q Dee Dee, Gene Weingarten's article sort of laid this out seemingly without question. But he seems to have made some contacts at the White House before. Were his questions to you and to --
MS. MYERS: Who?
Q Gene Weingarten -- treated seriously? Was his approach treated seriously? And was the President responsive to that?
MS. MYERS: Sure, I think that the Post let us know that they had done some very good reporting on this. And I think that the facts certainly hold up. I think the President chose not to comment on it. But we were certainly informed --
Q But he knew about the story --
MS. MYERS: Yes, we were informed that he -- that Gene was working on the story last week.
Q And he chose to not make an effort to find this brother until after the story was printed, even though he knew for several days all the facts in the story.
MS. MYERS: He learned of the facts over the weekend. I found out on Friday -- Friday afternoon.
Q Not before that?
MS. MYERS: No. I didn't, no. And I don't believe anybody else did, although I can't say for sure.
Q So he was briefed on this then, or --
MS. MYERS: He was just let know what was coming in the story, and he chose not to -- he declined to comment and saw the story on Sunday and tried to reach this gentleman on Monday.
Q His first nod to this was not the story.
MS. MYERS: No.
Q Dee Dee, there was another aspect of the story that was very touching, if you will -- the first, the eyewitness account of how his father died. Were these facts unknown to him, and did he have any -- did he read the story? Did he have any reaction to that?
MS. MYERS: I don't know how carefully he read the story and I have not talked to him about any of the details beyond those concerning Henry Leon Ritzenthaler.
Q Do you know why he -- again, he just finds out that he has this half-brother; he's curious enough yesterday to place a call. Why now the comment that he -- it might take a couple days? I think most people's first reaction would be to try to find him today.
MS. MYERS: He left a couple of messages, and Leon did not -- has not called back. I think the President -- he's in transit. I think that the Ritzenthalers are a little overwhelmed by the amount of tension this has generated. I think -- I don't think they could have possibly known what was in store for them, and I think the President just wants to give them a little time.
Q You don't think they knew what was going to happen when he flew across country to New York to do some interviews?
MS. MYERS: I just don't think -- people who don't deal with this on a day-to-day basis have any idea what it's like. (Laughter.)
Q Who is it, though, that's looking for a little -- who is it that's looking for a little calming in this -- the Ritzenthalers or the President?
MS. MYERS: I think the President would just as soon see some of the -- I mean, I think give these folks a little space here. But, again, I think he said clearly that he would -- may try to reach him again in a couple of days and we'll let you all know if he does.
Q Do you know -- wait a couple days, and why not today?
MS. MYERS: It's a very personal issue, and I think the President would just as soon handle it personally and let you know when he reaches him.
Q One more question. Does the President consider it automatic that he is his half-brother just because he has a birth certificate and marriage license? Does he see that as irrefutable proof?
MS. MYERS: I just am not going to comment on that. Again, if the President feels comfortable at some point commenting on the specifics, I will leave that to him.
Q Does the President want to find out if this is his half-brother, or is he simply content to talk to the gentleman and leave it lie? I mean, what --
MS. MYERS: Again, on the personal what does he want, how does he feel questions, I just am not prepared to answer them.
Q And are there any plans to have the President meet this gentleman?
MS. MYERS: I think we'll let them speak on the phone and see where it goes from there. There are no plans at this point.
Q Dee Dee, two questions -- these phone messages --
Q Dee Dee, have you got any travel coming up this week?
MS. MYERS: No.
Q the President made, you said, a couple of phone messages now to him, unreceived on the other end. Not to make light of it, but what exactly does a President say when he's leaving a message on an answering machine?
MS. MYERS: I think that somebody left it for him.
Q Saying what?
MS. MYERS: Saying I'm calling on behalf of President Clinton. Please give us a call, here's the number. The President wants to talk to you. I don't know exactly, but I would imagine it was a pretty straightforward message.
Q What's that phone number? (Laughter.)
MS. MYERS: 555-1212.
Q Dee Dee, a follow-up question. How does he feel about this person being in New York doing a couple of TV interviews?
MS. MYERS: Well, I actually think the President commented on that. He thinks that he's handled himself very well. I think the President said he was impressed by his humility and just this sort of nature of the way he's handled it. And beyond that he's said very little.
Q Dee Dee, back to the budget process, Mr. Panetta was indicating that the administration is expecting a lot of amendments on the Senate floor. Up to this point, there's been a hands-off attitude towards the process and looking towards conference. Is the President prepared to weigh in on either Republican or Democratic amendments, either pro or con, as that unfolds?
MS. MYERS: No. I think our position toward the Senate process has not changed. I think the President has made clear what he'd like to see come out of this. We'll wait -- the most important thing is moving the process forward and getting something into conference. But I don't think you have to be too involved in the process to know that there's a lot of amendments coming.
Q in talking to these Democratic senators who might be meeting with him who have concerns who may be looking forward to the amendment process to change or shape the bill to their benefit, are -- is the President prepared to tell them I support this or back them up in any way?
MS. MYERS: I think the President is prepared to tell them what he's going to -- what he wants to work for in conference and to listen to them -- to listen to their concerns. I think -- I can't speak to the specific nature of every conversation, but obviously they'll present their concerns to the President, talk to him about what they'd like to see come out of this; then President will talk to them about what he wants to see come out of the conference process. And I think he's very interested in seeing this move forward. And that's important. You know, we need the votes to get this thing to the conference process, and certainly the President would like to see it get there.
Q Do you know where you are on that, vote-wise?
MS. MYERS: No, I don't have a specific head count.
Q Do you there will be this week?
MS. MYERS: A vote? I think we expect it Thursday or Friday. I mean, they'd like to wrap up by Thursday. I don't know if -- Senator Mitchell doesn't know whether they'll be able to get it done.
Q Dee Dee, on finding a middle ground on the energy tax in conference, Director Panetta indicated that any scale-back of that tax would have to be considered in conjunction with any additional entitlement savings that you might find acceptable. Senate Finance has $19 billion more in Medicare savings than your package. Is it accurate to conclude, then, that you're willing to scale back energy -- a broad-based energy tax -- to $19 billion if entitlement savings end up to be $19 billion?
MS. MYERS: I think the point that Leon tried to make was that what he wants to see is $500 billion in deficit reduction; that the plan is fair; and that it raises most of its revenue from the wealthiest. That becomes a three-dimensional chess game. And obviously if you scale back the energy tax from $72 billion, that allows you to put spending back in someplace else.
Q But he mentioned specifically Medicare, Medicaid as far as bringing it into balance.
MS. MYERS: But I think the process is complicated. It's something that we'll have to work through. And I don't think he intended to take a specific position on any particular proposal. But clearly if you increase from the Senate's current energy tax total of $25 billion, that gives you more flexibility for other programs.
Q Dee Dee, can you tell us how closely the Aspin memo to the service chiefs comes to what the President thinks would be a good solution on the gays in the military?
MS. MYERS: The President has said only that he will wait to see the Secretary's recommendations.
Q He's not going to be following t he consultations that are going on in the meantime?
MS. MYERS: No, we'll wait and see what Secretary Aspin presents and then the President will make a decision based on that.
Q Is the President working on the budget today? Is he talking to people on the Hill today?
MS. MYERS: Well, obviously he's meeting with the -- there are several one-on-ones throughout the day. I think there's five. So he will be talking with different senators, as well as astronauts up in space. (Laughter.)
Q Dee Dee, given the priority to get some economic plan through the House-Senate conference by the August recess, does that mean now that health care is going to slip until September? Is that likely now?
MS. MYERS: Well, I mean, again, no hard decision has been made on that. We are hopeful that we'll get the reconciliation process over before the August recess. And I think sometime in the next few weeks we'll have to make a decision on health care timing. But we just haven't made it yet.
Q What else is going on this week? You say there's no travel. What else --
MS. MYERS: Yes, CEO lunch tomorrow. He's got a Democratic leadership meeting, House and Senate leadership meeting, tomorrow. I believe that's at 10:00 a.m. The CEO lunch is either 12:00 p.m . or 12:30 p.m. Then there's a House Whips reception here in the evening. Thursday, I don't have it in front of me --
Q Lunch with the Vice President.
MS. MYERS: Lunch with the Vice President, Thursday photo ops. And then Friday as of right now, it will depend --there's no public events scheduled, but it will depend on what happens with the Senate process.
Q Press conference this week?
MS. MYERS: What's that?
Q Press conference this week?
MS. MYERS: I can never rule it out. You know, we just never know when he might walk in here.
Q Do you have anything on the White House Chef?
MS. MYERS: No, other than that we can't comment on it. I guess it's being handled by Counsel. I told people earlier I would get back to you on the specific process. I don't know if it's OPM or White House Counsel, but it is --
Q So he's on the job --
MS. MYERS: He's on the job, enjoying full benefits.
Q At what rank? At his lower rank or --
MS. MYERS: No, I think it's unchanged.
Q You mean he's doing lettuce and carrots. (Laughter.)
MS. MYERS: I think pots and pans comes to mind. No, there's been no change in his duties or his status.
Q Is he doing broccoli.
Q Can I ask you on Haiti. Tomorrow's the deadline of the U.N. And General Raul Cedra, reports are coming out of Haiti, that he's willing to meet with President Aristide to discuss the situation. Does the White House have any comment on that?
MS. MYERS: Obviously, yes. Sanctions are scheduled to take effect tomorrow. I think it's -- we welcome General Cedras's invitation to meet with President Aristide. And we would hope that -- we've been encouraging talks all along and we had hoped that they would go back to the negotiating table and work out a settlement. We remain committed to full restoration of democracy and President Aristide's return.
Q Dee Dee, on the G-7 just can I ask you, do you have -- traditionally there's been a briefing for G-7 countries. Is Clinton going to do that?
MS. MYERS: Yes -- I'm sorry? We'll do some kinds of briefings.
Q Yes, but a briefing for the other press from the G-7 countries.
MS. MYERS: I don't know what the -- we haven't made any arrangements yet for foreign press. We're in the process of finalizing arrangements for you guys.
THE PRESS: Thank you.
END 1:55 P.M. EDT