THE WHITE HOUSE
Office of the Press Secretary
PRESS BRIEFING BY MIKE MCCURRY
The Briefing Room
1:06 P.M. EDT
MR. MCCURRY: Anything else in the world?
Q I have a question.
MR. MCCURRY: Wolf Blitzer.
Q Yes, of CNN.
MR. MCCURRY: CNN.
Q Did the White House get briefed by the FBI on the latest information of "top Chinese officials trying to buy favor with U.S. politicians"?
MR. MCCURRY: I've covered for you in the past the information I have about the national security information needed by the President to conduct our foreign policy. I really don't have anything new to add.
Q Mike, is Bill Weld the President's choice as Ambassador to Mexico? And how close is he to making that announcement? And why Mexico?
MR. MCCURRY: There's not -- I don't anticipate an ambassadorial announcement with respect to Mexico for some time. I will tell you that the President has very high regard for Governor Weld. They know each other well; they've served together and worked together through various governors associations. He would seem to me to be a dandy choice, but I'll leave it to the President to make any announcement of that nature at the appropriate time.
Q Just to go back to Wolf's question just briefly here -- you've indicated before, I believe, that the White House requested a briefing previously on the business of the Chinese money business. I think my question would be, have you had since then an additional briefing for officials on -- you aren't able to tell us details of what they talked about?
MR. MCCURRY: I'm not aware of any, although we receive information regularly, on a daily basis necessary for the President to conduct foreign policy. And, of course, the Attorney General, as she has said publicly, makes any determination about information that she has that would be necessary for the President's conduct of our nation's foreign policy. And that would be her responsibility to convey that material to us.
Q Well, it would seem like you would remember it. As I recall, you've had to make the request at least twice, somewhat more forcefully, to get your previous briefing.
MR. MCCURRY: Well, we got information back, as you know, in response to that request.
Q But you don't know whether there has been since then a request for additional information on later developments?
MR. MCCURRY: I don't know that we've asked for a -- I don't know that we made a separate request for additional information, but obviously we expect the Attorney General to make sure we have any information we need for the conduct of foreign policy.
Q Mike, what effect do you think this court ruling on tobacco is going to have on the separate talks between the tobacco industry and the state attorneys general and, tangentially, the administration?
MR. MCCURRY: I really am not in a good position to predict that. I think you really need to go to the parties that are apparently having some discussions and ask them how they assess the opinion. We've made clear from the President's statement what we think. We obviously are delighted with the question -- decision with respect to the question of jurisdiction. We do need to appeal the specific provisions that relate to advertising. And the parts of the regulation that deal with access that are in place are now, as you know, in effect, and we believe they are working. And we're working closely with local authorities to see how compliance is going. And we're starting the work now of protecting America's kids from the effects of tobacco use.
Q Would it be fair to say the President was surprised that a judge in North Carolina, a tobacco state, would issue this ruling?
MR. MCCURRY: It's fair to say, the President hasn't had much of a chance to review this because he was handed a wire bulletin as he was meeting with Prime Minister Hashimoto, and he's been engaged with that ever since. He'll have an opportunity at some point to review further the decision. He had a very brief session prior to the bilateral meeting so that we could authorize the statement that we've issued.
Q Mike, a couple of days ago, the Ambassador of Japan, in briefing on the summit, said that the two principals would not discuss any bilateral issues including the trade deficit because things were going so well and these matters could be handled at lower levels. I gather the President doesn't agree with that and did raise the trade deficit in his discussion.
MR. MCCURRY: Well, I'll leave -- I really should leave it to the President to answer a question like that. We've said, and I said here yesterday that we are concerned about some of the trade figures and some of the things we're seeing in the current account adjustments. But the President and the Prime Minister will discuss those issues if they see fit at 2:30 p.m.
Q Well, just from the President's remarks during the photo op, he indicated that he would address that issue.
MR. MCCURRY: Well, I think he made it clear that we want to keep the progress that we've seen in our trade relationship going in the right direction. There has been an uptake in some numbers in recent months, and we want to make sure we don't go back to any period of chronic trade surpluses -- trade deficits.
Q Mike, is the administration writing the legislation that is spoke of the other day on having a prominent display of Franklin Roosevelt's disability at the memorial to FDR, or is leaving it to Senator Inouye to --
MR. MCCURRY: I know we've worked with Senator Inouye and, of course, had very close consultations with him prior to making the announcement we made earlier in the week. I'm not sure whether we're drafting or whether we're leaving it for folks on the Hill to draft, but I think they've agreed to the parameters of the legislation.
Q The reason I asked that -- some leaders of the disabled groups understand that the legislation being drafted calls for a study of this issue which would wind up somewhere in 1999 or beyond. They're saying they want an ironclad guarantee that this will be addressed expeditiously and, if not, they are going to demonstrate. What is the President doing to guarantee that?
MR. MCCURRY: I believe the President's understanding is that they would move quickly to authorize the Secretary of the Interior to make the appropriate modifications to the memorial, but I'll have to check and see exactly what the legislation would say.
Q Well, do you think, Mike, then that if the legislation called for a commission that would then report back in two years, that would be contrary to the spirit of what President Clinton had wished?
MR. MCCURRY: I think that spirit of what the President wished was reflected in his statement. It's clear that we'd like to see the memorial incorporate the features the President said. I'm not -- just not aware of this issue regarding a commission. I'd have to check further.
Q Mike, you said the President hadn't had a chance to really review much of the decision in Raleigh since he was in the Oval Office during the bulletin --
MR. MCCURRY: Except just prior to it -- I mean, he got the general drift of it.
Q Did you guys get a heads up from them -- because the statement came out awfully fast?
MR. MCCURRY: No, but obviously a number of people within the government here at the White House, at the FDA, at HHS have been following this litigation carefully and the judge had announced that he was making this decision at 11:00 a.m. So all the government lawyers participating knew what the different likely outcomes were going to be based on the pleadings in the case itself. The President authorized the statement just very briefly prior to the beginning of the photo op.
Q Mike, 10 days ago, we were told that the White House would release to us the details of when Webb Hubbell came to the White House -- his access here after the time he left the Justice Department. Is there a reason why we haven't gotten that yet?
MR. MCCURRY: I think that the people who are working through those records still have some more work to do, and we'll find some convenient day to put them out.
Q Mike, when Madeleine Albright and then Vice President Al Gore went to China -- and I don't have your exact words, but they were to the effect that the White House felt confident enough that both of them had the information they needed on this fundraising issue to go to Beijing to talk to the leaders there. Is that still the opinion of the White House that they had all the information that they needed to conduct that aspect of foreign policy?
MR. MCCURRY: Well, they have raised this matter and expressed to the Chinese concerns about some of the allegations that have appeared. Both the Vice President and the Secretary indicated that if any of those allegations would prove true, that, of course, would be a serious matter and that we would take appropriate action. The information that they had in order to convey those concerns -- some of it is, of course, allegations that have appeared in the press and there have been additional allegations appearing in the press since then.
Q And did the information that they had when Albright and Gore went to Beijing include the latest allegations that this effort still continues by top Chinese officials?
MR. MCCURRY: You're asking me about a story today that's based apparently on a briefing that the Attorney General and the FBI allegedly gave to the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence. The White House is not aware of what the content of that briefing was. So you'd really have to ask the Attorney General.
Q Aside from the content of that briefing, was that information also available to Albright and Gore when they went to Beijing?
MR. MCCURRY: I have no knowledge of what that information was, so you'd really have to ask the Justice Department whether the same information was conveyed to the White House. I wouldn't have any way of knowing because I don't know what they briefed.
Q But I mean, with respect, the President -- given the President's need for the proper information to conduct foreign policy, it would seem that there wouldn't be anything that the Justice Department would be telling senators on the Hill that they wouldn't be telling you regarding this matter, would there?
MR. MCCURRY: That would be our assumption, yes.
Q Well, then you would know what was briefed to the senators in that session?
MR. MCCURRY: Presumably, anything the Attorney General and the FBI Director briefed to the Senate they briefed to us. But I don't know what they briefed to the Senate, so I can't answer the question of whether they briefed the same information to us. One of way of answering it would be to ask the Attorney General and the FBI Director. I just don't know.
Q Mike, two things on today's meeting with Prime Minister Hashimoto. First, did the President request that Japan reverse its position on food aid to North Korea?
MR. MCCURRY: I'm not going to try to brief the meeting that they've had. They've had a conversation last night. They did talk a bit about Korea, but subsequently we didn't get a complete readout on that meeting. And I'll leave it to the President and the Prime Minister to answer questions like that at the press conference.
Q Mike, on the budget, Senator Domenici put on the table an offer yesterday I think it was, or Wednesday, about budget progress with $150 billion in gross tax cuts. What is the White House doing with that today? And what is the prospect for budget discussions next week? And is that budget proposal viable here at the White House?
MR. MCCURRY: Well, they're thinking about it. And I think I saw Senator Lott quoted saying that he expected that at some point the administration would come back with something. And that sounds about right to me, but I'm not going to try to walk through the nuance of these very sensitive discussions.
Q -- (inaudible.)
MR. MCCURRY: Not that I am aware of, but I wouldn't rule it out only because it's Friday and I think some of the members are gone. But I do expect them to be talking next week.
Q Mike, has the President talked since Senator Lott made the announcement -- talk with the Senator to try to translate the progress he said he would in terms of the budget?
MR. MCCURRY: He may have. He had had some intent to do that, but I don't know whether he's had a chance to do that yet. I think he will work in coming days to build on that type of bipartisanship that we saw during consideration of the Convention.
That's the way Washington is supposed to work -- members on both sides agreeing to disagree on their differences, but working together to accomplish the piece of work that we believe is truly historic. Both sides had great opportunities to advance their arguments and differences that could be resolved amicably were resolved amicably. That's a good model for how you do business on a whole host of issues. And I think the President does want to use that experience as something of a model for future efforts, even though every issue that we deal with is going to have to be considered on its merits and not every case is going to probably lend itself to the same type of happy outcome. But we're going to make that effort.
Q He either has or he plans to call Senator Lott?
MR. MCCURRY: He is in such regular contact with the Majority Leader he doesn't really need to "plan" to talk to him because they talk almost constantly.
Q When Secretary Perry left Defense he indicated he thought defense cuts had gone about as far as they could without hurting military capabilities. Is that also the President's view?
MR. MCCURRY: Well, the President -- I don't want to say anything that would prejudice a process that's underway. I mentioned to some of you earlier today the President did have a very good discussion with Secretary Cohen today about the quadrennial defense review. That is very much in its concluding phase, and to answer that question specifically I think would prejudice some of the decisions that Secretary Cohen and the President reviewed today. They didn't make any final judgments, but it was an opportunity for the Secretary to give the President an update on some of the choices that we're going to have to make as we look ahead and think about the structure of our force going into the next century.
So I'll set that aside and when we do QDR, I think sometime next month, we'll have a better opportunity to talk about that.
Q Apparently, you got a letter today from 100 congressional Democrats saying you can't leave defense spending where it is, that you've got to cut more or you're going to have to cut more deeply into other programs.
MR. MCCURRY: We hear often that you need cuts in defense spending in order to make adjustments for non-defense discretionary spending that's needed. You also hear very often from the services and from others in Congress, too, that we waited too long to really get back into procurement and modernization and upkeep. So there are two sides of that debate and you have to strike the right balance, and I think the President attempted to do that in our budget proposal and we also are now in the business of looking out in the long-term and see what other adjustments we're going to need as we look at the needs of our force and how it should be properly equipped.
Q What's the President's level of concern on the military trucks?
MR. MCCURRY: He's got the update that he gave you very late last night and got a quick update on it earlier today, but I think he feels like it's being well handled by the right federal authorities.
Q Can I just follow up on that FEC petition issue? When was it that the White House decided to put that on hold for a while? And can you walk through the explanation again about --
MR. MCCURRY: Yes. Well, we fully -- what this issue is about is finding out, figuring out a way to ban soft money, so-called non-federal money, from federal campaigns. There are at the moment two different ways that we think could be complementary about how to do that. One is to just ban it legislatively or ban it as a matter of law. That's what the McCain-Feingold legislation would do. The other route would be to go to the FEC and ask them as a matter of rule-making to prohibit non-federal money in federal campaigns. That would likely be a fairly lengthy process and it would be preferable, obviously, to try to enact campaign finance reform that would accomplish that.
So we've been working with the sponsors on the Hill at the request of Senator McCain, who's worked this issue pretty hard on the Senate side -- held back for the time-being in submitting any petition to the FEC while we work to try to get some movement on the legislation in the Senate. But we are prepared and will, if necessary, go to the FEC with that petition at some proper point.
Q Senator McCain had a conversation with the President about this issue --
MR. MCCURRY: I don't know if they talked, but some of the folks who are working the issue here may have talked to him, probably some time ago, maybe several weeks ago now.
Q But you don't really think that McCain-Feingold is going anywhere this year?
MR. MCCURRY: Well, that's the conventional wisdom, but it should be going somewhere, and I think in the due course of time maybe it will, because I think people really do want to see some changes made in our system of campaign finance. And most Americans now have read plenty about, know plenty about some of the shortcomings that existed in the 1996 campaign; they want to know what we here in Washington are doing about it. And the answer is we ought to be passing that campaign finance reform legislation.
Q Well, if the FEC petition route would take a long time, why not go on parallel tracks and work on both?
MR. MCCURRY: Well, that's what we're considering, but again, we're working with sponsors to the legislation on the Hill and we had a good reason to hold back for the time-being on this particular petition. We could very well move that forward at a proper point sometime soon.
Q So the basic reason you're holding back is because McCain asked you to?
MR. MCCURRY: And he -- I should not speak for him, but I think he's been trying to get support for the legislation in the Senate, particularly on the Republican side, and we want to work closely with him and not do anything that compromises the work that he's doing.
Q My colleague, Allison, mentioned that insightful story this morning on how the President exercised leadership by dealing --
Q Thank you, Carl. (Laughter.)
MR. MCCURRY: I'm missing something here.
Q -- by dealing with Republicans on the merits of their concerns. If that were to be used as a model, say, on McCain-Feingold, what you would do is assure some of the Republicans who would like reform, but fear that the reform favors the Democrats, that labor could be reigned in a little more, while telling people like Mitch McConnell that you're just not -- he would be Helms in this analogy. Is the President really --
MR. MCCURRY: Look --
Q Wait a minute. (Laughter.) My question is, is --this is an issue I've covered, unlike all these other questions I ask -- (laughter.)
MR. MCCURRY: I'm still trying to figure out what this has to do with Allison's story. (Laughter.) Come back to that one.
Q Is the President serious about McCain-Feingold --
MR. MCCURRY: Could you clarify that for me, please?
Q -- or is he just trying to use it as a way to divert attention from the wrongdoing of '96? If he's serious about McCain-Feingold, there's vote out there to be got if he'll make calls and make compromises and getting his hands dirty. And my question is, is he going to do that?
MR. MCCURRY: He will, but only at the point where it's clear it's going to move into consideration actively on the floor. There's no consideration of that, and there's a senator who's made it quite clear he's going to filibuster. It's not easy to see the pathway to final passage now. I think, over time, the pressure will grow for the Congress to do something. And the President believes that, too, and believes that we will get to the point where that will be taken up.
Now, specifically on your question, there have been different models of campaign finance reform for years and years and years. The thing that's interesting about McCain-Feingold and about the companion bill in the House is it's the first time you've actually got some balance in which Republicans and Democrats together believe that neither party would get a special advantage as a result of the reform being enacted.
Now, there are some in the Senate who argue otherwise, that you could make the argument they make about independent expenditures that are made on behalf of the Republican Party. In fact, if you want to read -- since we're throwing around kudos -- read Liz Drew's new book about the House campaign on the Republican side in 1996 and the level of cooperation that existed there. I think all those same issues apply there.
Anybody else we wanted to add to that? Mick, what about yours? (Laughter.)
Q Wolf's stand-ups and --
Q And was Allison Mitchell's article insightful?
MR. MCCURRY: It was terribly insightful. You know, one New York Times reporter is about to win an award for insightful reporting about the White House and maybe the other one will, too, next year. Of course, it depends on what she writes. I think before we nominate her we ought to wait and see what she writes.
Yes, Leo -- take us off in some other tangential direction. (Laughter.)
Q If the President, in fact, believes and is committed to McCain-Feingold as a top priority agenda item, why doesn't he link it to something that's a top priority agenda item on the side of the Republicans, like a cut in capital gains tax? Why doesn't he simply say to Republicans, I'm not going to give you a cut in capital gains taxes unless you give me campaign finance reform --then he exercises some leverage. (Laughter.)
Q Add leadership.
MR. MCCURRY: Boy, Leo, I'll tell you, you go give that idea to John Kasich and tell him, here's what my idea for the day is. I know that you guys have been working these budget negotiations but I think what the President ought to do is come down here and as part of the budget negotiations -- which are going along so swimmingly, you can tell, we're just right on the verge of an agreement and everything is coming together lickety-split and we're resolving all the differences easily, without too much difficulty -- but we'll throw in as the mix, just as part of it -- (laughter) -- you know, hey, for the capital gains thing you can get McCain-Feingold thing, too. You don't want to balance the budget, do you? (Laughter.) You're against the bipartisan balanced budget agreement.
Q My question is --
MR. MCCURRY: Leo is against the balanced budget agreement. (Laughter.)
Q My question is what the President's priority is.
MR. MCCURRY: Look, comparing those two, in candor, a bipartisan balanced budget agreement is a lot more important to the President than McCain-Feingold.
Q That answers the question.
MR. MCCURRY: McCain-Feingold is important, but you've got -- you know, we're talking about the future of the economy, keeping the strong economic performance we have going, the solvency of Medicare, making the kind of educational system we want for our kids for the future, building a better health care system, making sure we've got fiscal discipline together. And, you know, that frankly matters a lot more to the American people than the individual interests of people who are running for office who have to pay for campaigns. Reality, that's the reality.
Now, we're going to find ways to try to advance McCain-Feingold and campaign finance reform and continue to find things that we can do, such as perhaps going to the FEC, that will help bring reform to politics because that's important, too. But, I mean, we do have to have a sense of priority.
Q Where does that stand, by the way, the FEC?
MR. MCCURRY: Oh, you walked in late, I think.
Q Oh, sorry. (Laughter.)
MR. MCCURRY: But if you want me to do the whole thing over? (Laughter.)
Q The President set July 4 as a goal for campaign finance. If by that point legislation has not been passed, is that the point at which he would send the petition to the FEC?
MR. MCCURRY: I don't want to set a deadline for that, the FEC action may happen sooner than that. But we are going to have to start thinking if we're not getting any movement at all on McCain-Feingold -- you know, at some reasonable point we're going to have to start thinking of other things that we can do. And there may be other things that we can do.
Q It may happen sooner than that, but would it happen any later than that? Is that sort of like the outside?
MR. MCCURRY: I don't want to set any timeline like that. I would have to go back and talk to the folks working the issue here and see what their sense of timing is. And we would want to consult with Senator McCain, Senator Feingold and others on that, too.
Q I'd like to go back to tobacco just for a second. You may have done this already and it didn't register with me. If you're unsuccessful in your appeal of the one portion of the judge's ruling, what impact do you figure that's likely to have, if any, on your --
MR. MCCURRY: On the overall effort to reach the goal? Well, the guidance that I was given by all the probably millions of lawyers who worked on this is to not speculate about that because they think the case is very strong on appeal. So we don't want to accept the possibility that we won't prevail in the end of the day.
But don't miss the significance of having that jurisdiction at the FDA. That means that there are many ways to approach the issue. Clearly the access portion of the regulation was acceptable to the court. We believe in the end the courts will find that the advertising restrictions are acceptable, as well.
Q Mike, I know somebody asked about this earlier, can you confirm whether the President is considering Governor Weld as a possible ambassador --
MR. MCCURRY: Already asked and answered. I gave about as close to a confirmation as you're going to get out of me today. (Laughter.)
Q Could you repeat what you said earlier? I apologize.
MR. MCCURRY: What did I say? Did you write it down?
Q Dandy choice.
MR. MCCURRY: President Clinton has worked closely with Governor Weld over many years, has high respect for him. I personally think it would be a dandy choice, but I think it's really up to the President to make any announcement concerning U.S. Ambassador to Mexico. And I believe he intends to do so soon.
Q Is there any thought being given, though, on how this would play out on Massachusetts politics, with the Lieutenant Governor, a Republican, moving up, becoming the incumbent and --
MR. MCCURRY: Do you think politics has anything to do with this, Wolf? (Laughter.) Not everything is Inside Politics, not everything. (Laughter.)
Q This is being made at a much higher level.
MR. MCCURRY: I think that the political impact of this will get sorted out more in Massachusetts by the people of Massachusetts than it will be here at the White House. We understand that there are political consequences for that decision, but we also understand there's good reasons in the interests of the American people to advance nominees who can serve this nation well and sometimes they come from elected political life.
Q Does he speak Spanish?
MR. MCCURRY: He does, my understanding, close to completely fluent.
Q Mike, while we're on the question of politics and leadership, what are the administrations plans --
MR. MCCURRY: Were we on the subject of politics? (Laughter.)
Q We're always on the subject --
MR. MCCURRY: I haven't talked about politics in so long I'm sort of out of style.
Q Tell us about that bridge again, Mike. (Laughter.)
MR. MCCURRY: Did you see -- there was a great line -- did you see Pena's line about the new energy efficiency standards for refrigerators? He said, we're building a fridge for the 21st century. (Laughter.) That was the play of the week.
Q Who said that?
MR. MCCURRY: Pena -- Pena about these refrigerator guidelines. That was the best line of the week.
Q That was a good sound bite.
MR. MCCURRY: Yes, make sure that gets on that page in Newsweek. Absolutely. (Laughter.)
Did you have a real question?
Q Was that on camera?
MR. MCCURRY: We're just -- ladies and gentlemen, we're killing time here waiting for the President and the Prime Minister of Japan to have a press conference very shortly.
Q What are the administration's plans for the Surgeon General's office in light of the departure of the acting Surgeon General? I mean, is there are reluctance to do anything given how things have played out the last couple of years?
MR. MCCURRY: No, the President fully intends to name a nominee. He's got someone very excellently well qualified in mind. And there has, frankly, been a -- I can't tell you here, but I can leak it to you later. (Laughter.) What? I'm not supposed to say that? There's an issue --
Q -- one of the phone doctors of Bethesda -- (laughter.)
MR. MCCURRY: There's an issue involving organization and how you structure the administration's work on public health policy that relates to this question, and that has been frankly the issue that has been one aspect of our consideration, plus finding the right candidate; making sure the right candidate cleared the necessary background checking and so forth. But we have someone who's very good in mind and someone who would serve very ably as Surgeon General.
Q This would be actual Surgeon or an acting -- (laughter.)
MR. MCCURRY: It might be someone who, as the military likes to say, would be dual-hatted, and I can't explain any more than that.
Q Would they have to be confirmed by the Senate?
Q Can you leak that to us?
MR. MCCURRY: They have to be confirmed one way or another, yes. The Surgeon General has to be confirmed and --
Q So it's not an acting --
MR. MCCURRY: No.
All right, today's entertainment is about to end unless we have any further questions. Happy weekend. We'll see some of you up in Philadelphia. Otherwise, we'll see the rest of you down here next week. Good bye.
Saturday night, Saturday night.
Q Be there.
THE PRESS: Thank you.
END 1:36 P.M. EDT