THE WHITE HOUSE
Office of the Press Secretary
PRESS BRIEFING BY MIKE MCCURRY
The Briefing Room
1:26 P.M. EST
MR. MCCURRY: All right, let me say good afternoon to you all, and welcome to the White House briefing. I start with a personnel announcement from the President of the United States. The President and most of us here are sad to say that Pat Griffin, who has been Assistant to the President and Director of Congressional Relations, has told the President he intends to resign effective February 1.
He's served in that current position since December 1993, which I believe, for most Directors of Congressional Affairs at the White House is well over the average. I think they usually last about 19 months, and then they get chewed up and spit out around here for all of the obvious reasons that we've been dealing with recently. But it has been a genuine -- we've got a written statement that shares the sentiments of the President about Pat, and as Leon Panetta said and others said this morning, serving with him has been a joy and a pleasure every day.
Q Where is he going?
Q Who's his replacement?
MR. MCCURRY: They're well on the way to having a replacement, but I don't have an announcement on that. I expect one fairly shortly.
Q Is the President thinking about going to Bosnia?
MR. MCCURRY: Yes, yes. Good afternoon.
Q Good afternoon.
MR. MCCURRY: Yes.
Q He is?
MR. MCCURRY: Yes.
Q When is he going to Bosnia?
Q And when, sir?
MR. MCCURRY: The President will go to Bosnia for reasons that I will have to make clear, I will have to be oblique about -- but he plans to go before the State of the Union address, which we now believe will be, although it's not been formally announced, January 23rd. He has wanted to go sometime during this period at a moment in which U.S. and NATO military commanders were confident they could squeeze a visit in by the President into the schedule that they have for the deployment that is ongoing.
Secretary Perry and General Shalikashvili and General Joulwan have just been there on the ground in Bosnia, as you know, and they will be making further recommendations to the President. But I expect him to go in a matter of days, but not this coming weekend.
Q Will he go, Mike, if the government is still shut down and the budget negotiations are still continuing?
MR. MCCURRY: Well, that will be a factor that we will consider in making a final decision to go, but I believe the President feels it is very important that deployment continues despite the government shutdown. And those troops are on the ground doing their work and the Commander in Chief would like to see them.
Now, that said, let me say a couple of other things about this trip. This will be an unusual effort on behalf of the White House because of the logistics involved. We are going in the midst of a complicated deployment into a place in the world that is not exactly entirely safe. And for that, principally security reasons, but other reasons as well, we will be very oblique about the exact schedule that we will follow.
I can tell you at this time, I anticipate that the White House will only accommodate a tight pool traveling with the President. Most of your news organizations, of course, have got personnel on the ground there. We will be delighted to work with them and with military public affairs officials who are on the ground. We intend to take very few press staff people with us. So I'd encourage news organizations to think of coverage in terms of their correspondents who are on the ground there because we will not be accommodating a large traveling party with us.
As we can give you exact details on the schedule, we will. There clearly will be at least one or two additional stops because, as most of you know, you don't fly direct into any location within Bosnia. But as we can give you more details on a schedule, we will, although, again, I would advise all news organizations we do not anticipate putting out any advance travel schedule at all. We will most likely only provide the final schedule while we are en route to our destination. And that is, largely, for security reasons.
Q It sounds like it's next week. Is it true that it's only going to be about one day?
MR. MCCURRY: It will be a short trip, and it will be sometime before the 23rd. I can't pin it down any further, but I gave you a rough idea, I think.
Q Are you withholding the date because you don't know, or because you think there's a security reason? Why are you withholding the date?
MR. MCCURRY: For a number of reasons, including those you just said.
Q Can you tell us more besides just meeting the troops what the President would want to do in Bosnia? And as long as you mentioned other stops, would those stops simply be logistic stops, or would there be any kind of diplomatic or presidential --
MR. MCCURRY: The second half of your question I can't answer yet. The first half of your question, he would like to see the troops, talk to them, see how they're doing, first and foremost. Second, he'd like to see senior U.S. and also senior NATO military commanders to get their assessment of the status of the deployment and also the report on the level of compliance with the terms of the date and the Paris Peace Agreement.
I believe that it's accurate to report, based on all of the reports we've had from administration officials who have been in Bosnia that the administration is very satisfied with the level of compliance, with what the parties themselves are doing now to honor the commitments that they have made, and that progress continues. But the President will want a more thorough briefing on that to see just where we stand on terms of compliance with the Dayton-Paris Accord.
Q Would there be any meeting with the political figures -- Tudjman, or Izetbegovic or any of those --
MR. MCCURRY: Not clear, and I have nothing to announce on that at this time. As we can provide you more details on any additional meetings or any additional stops on the trip, we will do that.
Q Why does he want to go before the State of the Union, and will he take people like Dole and others?
MR. MCCURRY: We will have, of necessity, a very small delegation, and I'm not sure who will be included in that delegation now. He would like to go at -- he had wanted to go, as most of you know, over the holiday period, but the recommendation was it would be far better to fit any travel that he might do into the schedule for deployment that they have. And that's, I believe, what has been done after the recommendation of both our own military commanders and NATO military commanders responsible for the deployment of force.
Q Does it have something to do with the State of the Union?
MR. MCCURRY: No, it doesn't. I'm using that as a convenient way to give you a rough time idea of when you might expect the travel.
Q There's always room in the back of his plane for Dole and Gingrich, though, isn't there? (Laughter.)
MR. MCCURRY: I wouldn't rule that out; sure -- for the reason that we had earlier, we had a good question earlier, what's going to be going on with the budget discussions and government shutdown, and that might be a factor in their schedules.
Q Has he been assured by General Joulwan that his trip, the logistics of that, would not disrupt the deployment?
MR. MCCURRY: We are confident -- that has been one of the President's principal concerns. We're confident that his trip with this small reduced delegation and reduced staff and reduced press entourage can be accommodated, given the military needs of the deployment and the commanders themselves.
Q Can you tell us at all how far along the deployment will be, how many of the 20,000 or so --
MR. MCCURRY: I could wing it and give you an imprecise answer, but they've been briefing almost daily on that, and I believe General Shalikashvili and Secretary Perry in transcripts I saw of their news conferences from yesterday in both Tuzla and Sarajevo address exactly that question. They'll be able to give you a good sense of where they are. We've known roughly where they would be around mid-January in the deployment, and the deployment and the deployment is proceeding on schedule after some heroic work getting the bridge built across the Saba River.
Q The organizations who would be in the travel pool for this trip will get adequate advance notice?
MR. MCCURRY: Yes. We'll make sure that those who -- once we fix a little better sense of when the timing is, those of you who got pool responsibilities will know who you are will make sure that you know where you have to be and when.
Q Is Leon still meeting with Kasich and Domenici, and what can you tell us --
MR. MCCURRY: They had sandwiches brought in about an hour ago, and I think they are still meeting. But the purpose of that meeting, as I indicated to some of you earlier, was for Mr. Panetta, who has been a part of the discussions in the Oval Office with the Speaker, with the Majority Leader, with the President, with the Vice President, with the Minority Leader of the Senate and the Minority Leader of the House to bring -- also Mr. Armey; would not want to forget him -- is to bring them up to speed on the status of some of those discussions, the progress that they're making, some of the tradeoffs and the different elements that would go into a balanced budget agreement, which the principals are now working very hard to achieve. And of course, having the expertise and wise counsel of the chairs, and then later on today Mr. Panetta will meet with the ranking members as well, but having the chairs and the ranking members of the budget committees well apprised of the status of these discussions will help them lend their counsel and wisdom to the deliberations.
Q Mike, the administration at one time or another has said it would like to have or would expect to have 70 Democratic votes in the House for any compromise budget. Is that a hard number? Is that still the President's objective, or his commitment on that issue, or is there such a --
MR. MCCURRY: Well, I mean, that's a rough -- there are different rough counts you could do on getting votes. We hope we can produce, because of the work we're doing, a bipartisan balanced budget agreement that would attract the support of a majority of members on both sides of the aisle in both Houses. We were looking for an agreement that would get widespread support in Congress. It might not satisfy necessarily every person across the entire political spectrum, but certainly would satisfy more than that. It will be much harder to get a deal where you need to rely on a different coalition.
Q Why was it cancelled, the principals meeting?
MR. MCCURRY: I'm sorry. Brit, your follow.
Q If I could just follow up. Any seven-year CBO-scored deal with a tax cut of any size is likely to meet with some resistance in the Democratic caucuses in both House and Senate, especially the House. Is the President sure he can do that and still bring along his party?
MR. MCCURRY: We'll have to see. The President's put a lot of work in to working with the Democratic members of the House and Senate. We had a range of opinions represented at the meeting that he had at Blair House several Saturdays ago in which they go into exactly that issue.
It is my understanding that some people don't feel this is a good time for a tax cut, but others in the Democratic Party, including the President, do. How do you bring people together and how do you make the necessary trade-offs and simultaneously protect Medicare, Medicaid, the investments that are important in the future. There's been a lot of work done to seeing if we can't keep a cohesive Democratic support for any agreement that emerges. I can't predict now whether that support will be there. We can't even predict what kind of an agreement we're going to get, although, obviously, they are working hard to get one.
Helen, in response to your question, my understanding is that Speaker Gingrich's chief of staff and Congressman -- I mean, Senator Dole's chief of staff called Mr. Panetta just around 11:00 a.m. this morning to say that they, frankly, needed to postpone this meeting because of urgent work that the Republicans are doing in the House to deal with the consequences of the shutdown of our government, that they needed to spend some time reviewing the situation, seeing if there wasn't some way of addressing the consequences of the shutdown and the situations the federal employees find themselves in.
And, of course, the President and the White House believe that's urgent work that they should do, and we were more than obliging in the request that they made for a postponement of today's meeting. I don't believe it's going to represent any long delay in the proceedings. In fact, I would imagine that the discussions will begin as early as tomorrow.
But in the meantime, House Republicans who are now totally isolated in the Congress from Senate Republicans, from Senate Democrats, from House Democrats, they now have the opportunity to do what they must do which is to pass a continuing resolution to open this government. They should do that this afternoon. The Speaker of the House should bring that up for a straight vote this afternoon.
As Connie Morella and others said coming out of the House Republican Caucus yesterday, there are 55 votes in the House Republican Caucus to re-open the government. So it's got majority support in the United States Congress, and in this country majority rules. So the Speaker should bring it up for a vote so the House can vote a clean CR and can re-open our government. They should do it today. They should not delay any longer. And the government should go back to work tomorrow.
Q Do you get any indication this might actually happen from these discussions that --
MR. MCCURRY: I don't want to comment for them on what their deliberations are, but we hope that it will.
Q Having commented already on the --
MR. MCCURRY: Those who are awaiting the arrival of the President, he should be back here in about 20 minutes if anyone needs -- I don't anticipate him saying anything. I just want to alert you.
Q You do have the votes to pass a CR in the House?
MR. MCCURRY: We don't need the votes. We have very strong Democratic support in both Houses of Congress to re-open the government now. The problem is the House Republicans. They need to produce the votes. There's an indication coming out of their caucus yesterday they have the votes. The Speaker needs to let them vote, let them vote today, and put the government back to work tomorrow.
Q Is there a formal time for tomorrow to resume the principals meeting?
MR. MCCURRY: We don't have a formal time yet. We will keep you apprised when we know.
Q What about tonight? Is the President going to be speaking before the United Negro College Fund, and will he -- will this be open or closed, or what's the story there?
MR. MCCURRY: We believe it's closed, a closed event. Just a reception in honor of them. It's one that's held, I think, annually or periodically by Presidents going back a number of years.
Q Mike, has the President been made aware of the draft memo by David Watkins on the Travel Office that was found in the White House files? And can you tell us what his comment is on it and the fact that it seems to indicate that the First Lady had a very, I believe it was an "insistent interest" is the way it's described, in firing those people who worked in the Travel Office?
MR. MCCURRY: No. I can't tell you whether the President knows anything about the news report that occurred last night and this morning. As to the White House reaction, that was contained in Mr. Fabiani's statement.
Q No, it's not.
Q He didn't put out a statement.
Q Why wouldn't the President know such a thing --
MR. MCCURRY: I didn't say --
Q -- an important memo like that in the White House?
MR. MCCURRY: I didn't say whether or not he knows. I said that I hadn't talked to him about it.
Q Could you ask him about it? Could I just finish on this issue? Could you ask him about it? And, also, I don't believe that Mark Fabiani ever put out a statement. He simply put out a statement by David Watkins on it.
MR. MCCURRY: I think he's got a comment or a statement that's available. Have they not put that in -- he's got one that's available if you call him.
Q Mike, one of the questions that arose downstairs earlier today was -- we were sort of under the impression that Fabiani was brought in to handle Whitewater-related stuff; why is the Whitewater lawyer handling Travel Office material?
MR. MCCURRY: Well, he's a special counsel in the Office of the Legal Counsel, Special Counsel to the President. This is a matter that's under congressional inquiry. Some of you may have seen this memo and you'll see that there will be people -- we expect people will try to draw some connections into matters that have been under inquiry by the D'Amato committee; that's our expectation.
His statement is very straightforward. I mean, the First Lady -- Mr. Fabiani's statement says the First Lady's concern about financial mismanagement in the Travel Office, which has proven justified, was well-documented. His statements, Mr. Watkins' statements have been thoroughly reported in seven different reports.
Q Why do you say it's proven justified?
Q Justified how?
MR. MCCURRY: In the changes that have been made to bring better management into that office.
Q You have got to be kidding.
Q Why did Watkins go on the campaign after he got fired from here? And is he still on campaign retainer, and is that --
MR. MCCURRY: I don't know. You should direct that to the Campaign Committee.
Q Can you respond to some of the content of the memo, though? The "there will be hell to pay" part and that sort of stuff?
MR. MCCURRY: No.
Q Can you tell us what the Secret Service incident was that's referred to continually in the document?
MR. MCCURRY: I can't. Mr. Watkins' statement is the information that we've got available, and it indicates that he spoke once directly to Mrs. Clinton about the matter. And the conversation is described and the draft document was reported by the Office of Professional Responsibility in the GAO. I believe you could refer to some of the other discussions of this and the other seven reports that have been printed.
Q The acquittal of Billy Dale and the President's subsequent apology to him would seem to indicate, though, that it was not justified where he was concerned.
MR. MCCURRY: Well, the President said that he regretted what Mr. Dale had to go through.
Q Yeah, well?
MR. MCCURRY: I think it's a human reaction that somebody who goes through that, you regret what he had to go through.
Q Are you saying that the White House now believes firing those seven people was justified?
MR. MCCURRY: I didn't say that.
Q Well, that's what we're asking.
MR. MCCURRY: I think that that matter has been addressed in the numerous reports -- I refer you back to the seven reports that are available and a variety of public review of this matter which is all fully on the record. It's all fully been explored. It's all on the record. There's a voluminous public record that's available, and you can have at it.
Q Mike, you're not meaning to say that the level of involvement and interest by the First Lady that is indicated by this Watkins memo has ever been acknowledged by the White House or even reported before, do you?
MR. MCCURRY: No. I think that in the GAO studies and the others there was concern expressed about financial mismanagement in the Travel Office, and, in the end, there proved to be some justification for that. That's what Mr. Fabiani's statement says.
Q I understand that. But the question I was trying to get at is, you are sort of indicating here that all this has been reviewed before, but, in fact, does not the Watkins memo suggest a level of interest and involvement by the First Lady that has never before been indicated or acknowledged by the White House?
MR. MCCURRY: My understanding is not. Now, Mr. Fabiani is more familiar than that, but my understanding is that that has been reflected in his testimony and some of the information he's provided in the past.
Q No --
Q It hasn't --
MR. MCCURRY: That's my understanding. I am not as familiar as Mr. Fabiani, but I'd suggest that you might want to contact him.
Q There also has never been a --
Q Could we get -- not so long ago we had a White House Travel Office report which this memo takes issue with line by line. That report was presented to us as the greatest, most candid thing in the universe. Now, can we get a clear statement whether the White House still believes that report was accurate or whether it was misleading?
MR. MCCURRY: I'll go back and check on that. Since I was not here at the White House during that time period, I have to go back and look and see, but that may have been addressed publicly on the record and I'll make a search for it.
Q The question, Mike -- none of the other reports clearly bring a line between a somewhat mysterious Secret Service incident and the First Lady's unhappiness with the quickness with which that incident was resolved.
MR. MCCURRY: I can't help you there. I have absolutely no idea what reference is to.
Q Could you ask that for us? Could you take that question?
MR. MCCURRY: It's a draft memo, draft memo, never sent by Mr. Watkins. And all I have from -- is Mr. Watkins' one-paragraph statement. I don't have any clue what he was thinking of in that one passage. I mean, he will have to address that himself. It's a draft memo he never sent to anyone. And so he's the custodian of what that reference is.
Q Can you take a question on that, please?
MR. MCCURRY: I can't take a question from Mr. Watkins; he doesn't work at the White House.
Q Can you take a question about what that incident may have been, if any? Somebody else must know; he's talking about the First Lady.
MR. MCCURRY: I can't speculate on what he might have meant in a reference. I'd have to know what the reference is about.
Q I'm not asking you to speculate, will you inquire? Will you inquire as to what --
MR. MCCURRY: Do you want me to call Watkins and find out what he --
Q Call the First Lady's Office.
Q Call the Director of the Secret Service.
Q -- a request from the First Lady.
MR. MCCURRY: I'm not certain what she would -- I'm not certain what she would know -- how she would know to --
Q Mike, you ask questions all the time of people who aren't certain what the answer is going to be. Can you ask the question and get back to us?
MR. MCCURRY: I'll refer to the First Lady's Press Office and see if they can help you.
Q Mike, could you take that question and also perhaps refer to Mack McLarty? And also, could we get some statement from Mack McLarty as to whether, in light of the Watkins memo, which directly contradicts the Travel Office report, whether he still stands by that report?
MR. MCCURRY: I'll see if he's got anything to add to Mr. Fabiani's statement. If he does, we'll post it.
Q What do you mean by how it's going to be interpreted by D'Amato's committee?
MR. MCCURRY: There's a matter in the draft memo, to my understanding, that has touched on areas that had been under review by the D'Amato committee.
Q Mike, not to prevent you from getting out of this swamp -- (laughter) -- but might it not be useful -- obviously, there are some serious questions raised on a range of issues by this draft memo which may be anything, but clearly it would be useful to have them answered. Could you see about getting us a more thorough --
MR. MCCURRY: Let me make a point here. The reason why we're discussing this matter is because this document in question was provided to a congressional committee that's reviewing the matter. I have a strong suspicion that all these questions you're asking me are going to be asked by the committee, which is the appropriate representative of the American people on these matters. So I can't --
Q In this country reporters ask questions, too, Mike, and it's not inappropriate to ask them at the White House since this is where the memo came from.
MR. MCCURRY: We do our very best to answer those questions. But the person in question is not currently an employee of this White House. Now, my guess is that people are going to want to ask questions about this memo of the person who drafted it, and I'll have to see what the process is going to be to get those answers, because my guess is that the appropriate venue for providing those answers is going to be before the United States Congress under oath, and not by the Press Secretary here at this podium.
Q Will Fabiani brief and answer what he can instead of taking 30 press calls?
MR. MCCURRY: I'll check and see if he's available to do that.
Q This morning you indicated there was a lot of progress in the writing of the budget in terms of they're actually about to write it, so that means there's really widespread agreement, right, on the budget now, in the negotiations?
MR. MCCURRY: I hope I didn't leave anyone with that impression. I think they've got a lot of work to do if they're going to reach agreement on the issues that are toughest and hardest to reconcile, but they're working at it and working in good faith at it.
Q On the postponement, do you think that might give time for the Republican detractors to dig in and perhaps bring themselves back to the spotlight?
MR. MCCURRY: I can't predict what the outcome will be. As I say, we just think it's a wise idea for them to deal with the consequences of the shutdown, which we think is unconnected to the progress that's being made on the balanced budget discussions. As the President indicated to you yesterday, there are not -- they're using that as a weapon on him or a lever on him that's clearly not working.
Q What do you think prompted them --
Q Yesterday you said that there were some cases of federal workers who have had to have their personal phones turned off as a result of -- do you have any examples of that? Because there is apparently some confusion whether, in fact, that has occurred.
MR. MCCURRY: That was an anecdote related to the President I believe, if my recollection serves me right, by James Lee Witt of FEMA, who said that they've got people around the country who are emergency workers who are currently in furlough -- about 86 percent of the FEMA staff is being furloughed. If there is an emergency -- a natural disaster, an earthquake, a fire or something that FEMA has to respond to, they have got the ability to call some of those people back. But one concern they've got right now is some of those employees, because they can't pay their bills, don't have phone service. Now, that was related to the President by James Lee. I'll see if I can get some more on that. This is their home phones.
Q And you mean, the local phone company would actually go ahead and turn off their phones because they couldn't pay their bills?
MR. MCCURRY: Apparently, that's been a case.
Q And what is your reaction to a consideration by the House to go out until the 23rd of this month?
MR. MCCURRY: I can't imagine that's going to happen. I would say something choice about it, but it's hard to imagine that they would do that when so many Americans are facing the consequences of this shutdown. We think it's far more likely that the Speaker will understand a majority of his Republican Caucus wants to reopen the government, and they will do so this afternoon, we hope.
Q You think or --
Q Have you had a chance to ask the President about his salary?
MR. MCCURRY: I haven't -- I have meant to do that and I have not been in a setting where I can do that. I'll try to do that.
Q Does the administration have lawyers researching at all whether there's anything legally the President can do on his own absent congressional appropriations or CRs to get the government reopened.
MR. MCCURRY: Yes. He's got lawyers working at exactly that question. They've done what they can do day by day for situations where they're confident of the interpretation of the statute, and they're looking at other ways which they might be able to address the consequences of the shutdown. But they haven't developed anything definitive.
Q And these are lawyers where -- White House counsel?
MR. MCCURRY: White House legal counsel and they're working, I believe, with -- there may have been Justice Department involvement, too, or OPM involvement, but certainly --
Q Why do you think the leaders are feeling -- are they feeling stampeded now on the Hill? Is there anything that's changed that's made them urgent?
MR. MCCURRY: What's changed is that with every passing day the consequences of the shutdown become more dire. And I think that they're beginning to feel it.
Q Mike, I'm a little puzzled. We've been asking for three weeks whether the President was going to donate his salary, and in three weeks you haven't been able to ask?
MR. MCCURRY: I apologize, I haven't been very effective for you. I'll try to do a better job.
Yes. Anything else?
Q Yes. There are increasing calls for Republican members of Congress to forego their paychecks during this full shutdown. What is the thinking at the White House on that?
MR. MCCURRY: Well, it's the same question as before. Look, the issue -- I mean, the President wants to do something that's going to be meaningful. A symbolic gesture that has no consequence, I think the President is not certain would be really meaningful. He's already -- the President is paid once a month. He's been paid for the month of December already. He doesn't get paid until the end of January. Frankly, we're hoping that the question of putting his paycheck in abeyance is moot by that point.
Q I asked about members of Congress.
MR. MCCURRY: Oh, I can't speak to members of Congress. They'll have to address the same situation in the same dissembling fashion that I have been addressing it here. (Laughter.)
Yes? Anything else?
Q Will you talk about the memo some more? (Laughter.)
MR. MCCURRY: I think I'm going to go home. Good-bye. (Laughter.)
THE PRESS: Thank you.
END 1:55 P.M. EST