THE WHITE HOUSE
Office of the Press Secretary
PRESS BRIEFING BY MIKE MCCURRY
The Briefing Room
1:54 P.M. EDT
MR. MCCURRY: Well, thank you to Sylvia and Maria for that briefing. Anything else in the world that any of you would like to know about?
Q What do you hear about disaster?
MR. MCCURRY: Apparently the Republican Caucus has been caucusing for most of the day and there hasn't been any white smoke. You know, sooner or later they will come out and say that, yes, we recognize the President's concerns and we also recognize the concerns of the people who have been waiting for disaster assistance and they will pass something and send it down here so we can get on with life. But, unfortunately, that hasn't happened yet.
Q Do you think it'll happen today?
MR. MCCURRY: We hope so. We had, of course, indications from the Republican leadership that they were set to acknowledge that it's time to move on and pass something so that the President could sign it. But they apparently are still quibbling amongst themselves. We wish they would stop fighting amongst themselves and just get on with work and send us a bill.
Q They claim that the President has violated an agreement that he wants to go higher now in the amount of aid?
MR. MCCURRY: I think the issue was just to get full funding for the disaster assistance programs that we were talking about and that's what we would like. They have suggested some ways in which they might want to trim some of the funding from other aspects of the bill. And Mr. Hilley from our staff has given them some general parameters that would be acceptable to the White House so that they can craft the right kind of legislation. I mean, they know what will pass the test for the President, they just haven't been able to produce anything at this point.
Q Mike, is there a prospect of an imminent breakthrough on the tobacco issue?
MR. MCCURRY: Not that I've heard.
Q Because some of the attorneys general and some of the people involved say that they're very, very close. Is the White House prepared to sign off on this deal, if there is a deal?
MR. MCCURRY: They have reported to us, to Mr. Lindsey, that they are in fact making progress on a lot of issues -- they have got some things the they think are going to work for all the parties represented at the discussions. But they have some very real disagreements and it's not clear whether those disagreements will be resolved. In fact, I happened to run into Attorney General Moore, myself, just had an opportunity -- he told me that as of late yesterday, and Mr. Lindsey says that's pretty much where things stand at this point.
Q Any reaction on the NATO decision?
MR. MCCURRY: Yes. Let me first --
Q Was Attorney General Moore in the White House today again?
MR. MCCURRY: I don't know if he's been here today. I ran into him yesterday. And he was here and he talked to Bruce Lindsey. He also went over and talked to -- there's a group that includes some White House folks, some Health and Human Services folks and some Justice Department folks that are getting set to, if there is anything they need to review, review it, so that the White House can give a more concrete and clear answer to the question is this something that the President finds acceptable.
And they're starting to get organized so that they know what development issues are. And I believe that Mr. Meyers (phonetic) and Attorney General Moore met with that inter-agency group yesterday over at HHS. But, in addition, they were here and they talked to Mr. Lindsey.
Q But the procedure would be that the state attorneys general and the industry leaders would come to some agreement, and then the White House would review it? It wouldn't be a tripartite announcement of agreement?
MR. MCCURRY: Our presumption is that they're going to work through all these relevant issues and say, here's what we think works in the best interests of the parties that we represent, the states we represent, the industries we represent, the constituencies we represent -- we would like to present it to the White House for the reaction of the President; and we want to be in a position to evaluate that in a way that is consistent with the President's public health objectives.
And so we're going to take a -- have to look at a very detailed look and see is this going to get us to the President's goal of a reduction by half in the number of kids who are smoking by the year 2000, and will it get us there faster than the regulatory approach which is subject to litigation. Of course, the problem and the challenge all along has been to see if we can't arrive at something that avoids protracted negotiation while being consistent with the public health interests that the President has expressed. And they're certainly not there at this time.
Q Well, Mike, just out of curiosity on this tobacco thing, at the very least -- I mean, to put it mildly, you've been actively monitoring the discussions. What does the White House need to sign off on that it can't at this point say, we know precisely what all the details of this are; we'll either say "yea" or "nay"?
MR. MCCURRY: Well, because we don't. I mean, I don't and I'm certain that the parties themselves don't know what some of the central -- how they're going to answer some of the central questions or if some of the central questions are going to be answered.
Q But I'm saying, when the deal is done you're saying that the White House doesn't sufficiently know the details of it now and hasn't sufficiently run it by, you know, all of the relevant agencies to say, yes, this is good or bad?
MR. MCCURRY: We have not and we -- as I just reported to you, we are starting to organize so that we would be in a position to be able to do that if they reach that kind of settlement. It's enormously complicated and they've -- some of the discussions on certain areas have been fairly technical and have not produced clear cut answers on how you're going to resolve certain questions.
In fact, one reason we have not sort of tried to answer the question, is this going to work, is we're not exactly sure what they're going to end up with at the end of the day. Some of the proposed solutions to certain types of problems have shifted around during the course of their discussions. That's one reason why I think we've sort of monitored where they are and given them some general parameters about what we think is in the realm of the acceptable and reminded them overall what our long-term interests are, which are to achieve the public health objectives the President has.
Q How close are you to consensus on limiting the new NATO members to three?
MR. MCCURRY: Let me first read a statement from the President. We will have this, I think, in written form, too, so -- you've got it on the record.
"After careful consideration, I've decided that the United States will support inviting three countries -- Poland, Hungary and the Czech Republic -- to begin accession talks to join NATO when we meet in Madrid next month.
"We have said all along that we would judge aspiring members by their ability to add strength to the Alliance and their readiness to shoulder the obligations of NATO membership. Poland, Hungary and the Czech Republic clearly meet those criteria, and have currently made the greatest strides in military capacity and political and economic reform.
"As I have repeatedly emphasized, the first new members should not and will not be the last. We will continue to work with other interested nations, such as Slovenia and Romania, to help them prepare for membership. Other nations are making good progress and none will be excluded from consideration. We look forward to working with our NATO allies to reach agreement on this important issue."
That statement from the President, Secretary Cohen has now formally presented to our allies the United States' position at the Defense Ministers meeting that's occurring now in Brussels. We will continue to consult and to work with our Alliance partners and through the good offices of the Secretary General, we expect to arrive at consensus well before the Madrid Summit.
Q That statement seems to assume that the U.S. position will carry the day. How do you know that the U.S. position won't carry the day and that Slovenia and Romania won't be in the first round?
MR. MCCURRY: I'm tempted to say because this is NATO -- I won't say that. I'll say because we are confident that as we work with our Alliance partners, the United States position will prevail. But remember, because NATO operates in a consensus format and because all 16 governments have to accede to the decisions, it is important to note there is consensus already around three. It's clear that in the discussions we've had so far that there are no objections to these three entrants, there is no consensus across the Alliance with respect to additional members, even though there is a great deal of sympathy for the positions of Romania and Slovenia and in fact, the United States itself recognizes the progress they've made. We just think there needs to be additional progress.
Q Is there any time table --
Q Why did the President decide to announce this today? Earlier the administration said you were going to wait until there was consensus and work internally.
MR. MCCURRY: No, we didn't suggest that. I think we said we would continue to work within the Alliance to try to achieve consensus. And sometimes achieving consensus is helped by the United States clarifying publicly its views. We've worked this issue for quite some time in the councils of the foreign ministers and at other levels which we've had discussions with other members of the Alliance. And I think as we get closer to Madrid it's proper for the United States to publicly articulate its view. And, of course, the Secretary of Defense was making this presentation today in Brussels and it was clearly bound to become public one way or another.
Q Where specifically do Romania and Slovenia fall short?
MR. MCCURRY: Well, they're different in both cases. In the case of Slovenia, they probably still are in a position where there is more they can do to fully demonstrate the military capacity to join the Alliance and to fulfill the military obligations. I think in the case of Romania, there's still progress needed in both economic areas, in terms of economic liberalization -- and then also some of the political reform process and which would bring them into congruence with some of the other Central European countries that are going to be proposed for membership.
This is not to say that they are lacking; it's to say that the kind of progress that would then qualify them for membership is something that we clearly hope will evolve, but we will nurture, and that when we will do that is to continue to support their active participation in the partnership for peace program where they can kind of demonstrate the kind of criteria that we're looking for to qualify for membership.
But, again, remember one of the things that we will press for is a very clear decision at the summit that the door is open and that this is not the last round of new membership candidates from Central and Eastern Europe.
Q Mike, has the White House had a chance to look at the tax bill yet and, if so, can you give us --
Q Can we finish NATO?
Q Let's stick on NATO.
MR. MCCURRY: Yes.
Q Is it fair to say that the administration came to a realization that the lack of a public open bottom line was allowing other nations, especially the French, to agitate for four or five?
MR. MCCURRY: I'd put it a little differently than that. As the decision making in NATO frequently occurs, it's the consultations, the discussion, the dialogue that go on within the North Atlantic Council is valuable in helping shape a coming decision. But at the end of the day, when the United States publicly articulates a position, that that tends to be a way in which things are brought to resolution.
Q When he met with Kohl last week did he get any feel that Germany wouldn't stand in the way of free or continue to push for four or five?
MR. MCCURRY: The President has had opportunities to review this at his level with some of his counterparts. I prefer not to get too directly into those conversations, but he has been part of the process of exploring, examining, understanding better the feelings of other governments. And he's, of course, been making his own positions clear and his own thinking clear to his counterparts.
Q In his meeting last night with the Senators, did they say that they would propose just three and not four, even though they wanted four?
MR. MCCURRY: I think the advice and the counsel the President got from members of the Senate last night was very important. By no means is there unanimity within the Senate on this decision. But I think the Senate clearly understands the President's thinking better, partly as a result of the kind of consultation we had last night. And I think the President understands better some of the concerns of leading members of the Senate as they look at the question of expansion. And I think that generally, we feel that this is a position that the Senate will be supportive of.
We understand that there will be some expressions of objection, but we think at the end of the day -- given especially the fact that this is going to reduce the cost to U.S. taxpayers of the additional burdens of bringing on new members -- that this is going to be a position that the Senate will support when it comes time to ratify an amendment to the treaty.
Q Is the President hoping the second round of NATO expansion will occur within his administration?
MR. MCCURRY: The Clinton-Gore administration? I think that that's a question that they won't be able to address until they examine how the membership process goes post-Madrid. Remember, this is -- they're not actually bringing on new members when we meet in Madrid in July. We're actually beginning the process of formally bringing those three countries into the Alliance. And that will take some time, most likely will take through 1998 and into 1999.
Q And, also, does he think that the Baltic nations are making similar progress, similar to Slovenia and Romania?
MR. MCCURRY: Absolutely. In fact, all three Baltic countries are active participants in Partnership for Peace and regular participants in some of the joint training activities. The Pentagon could tell you more specifically about some of their participation. And in the area of both economic and political reform, they've been making substantial strides. And there's a great deal of progress there.
So if you -- we are not rank ordering the second group in line, but there will be a number of candidates that will most likely prove very attractive to an expanded alliance.
Q What is the administration's view on whether Secretary Baker ever told Shevardnadze and Gorbachev that there would not be any eastward advance of NATO?
MR. MCCURRY: I have never looked into that question.
Q Don't you think it might be a somewhat crucial one? Whether this represents a reneging on a previous statement?
MR. MCCURRY: I think that the process by which we have arrived at the moment of expanding the alliance has been one of the most transparent of all discussions that we've had about foreign policy over the last years. We've done all of these decisions in a very open way. The bringing on of the Partners for Peace, the creation of that program, the modification of what we call the NACC, which was sort of the predecessor -- in some ways the predecessor organization of the Partnership of Peace -- all involved an evolution of thinking as we dealt with the aftermath in the end of the Cold War.
So history itself, I think, has changed some of the circumstances in which we've looked at these questions. I think all the governments have been very clear on what the thinking of the United States government is as we approach the question of adapting NATO for the reality of the challenges we face in the next century. So I doubt there's any misunderstanding about the U.S. thinking on that general question.
Q Subject change --
Q Well, just on that point, Mike. Has Russia raised this Baker pledge with the United States as something of an issue in its stated objections to NATO expansion?
MR. MCCURRY: Not to my knowledge. And Eric reminds that -- I think, if I'm not mistaken, Secretary Baker has disputed some of the account of how his views were portrayed. I wasn't aware of that. When did he do that?
MR. ERIC RUBIN: Several months ago.
Q In that instance, would the White House ask that the government notes of the meeting be made available?
MR. MCCURRY: That's not normally what's done.
Q 50 years from now. (Laughter.)
Q I didn't think so.
MR. MCCURRY: When that volume of the fine series on the historical record of the foreign policy of the United States is printed by the Office of Historian at the State Department, I'm sure those notes will be included.
Q Mike, Representative Gerald Solomon has accused former Commerce Department official John Huang of giving classified information to the Lippo Group. Is the Clinton administration seriously investigating it? Is this a serious allegation?
MR. MCCURRY: I can't tell you for a fact that it is --it's a serious allegation and I would presume that if there is any truth to it, it is being pursued properly by those investigating. But I wouldn't be the person to comment on it, the Justice Department clearly would be.
Q What's the subject of the President's remarks this afternoon?
Q Was the White House informed of the allegations?
MR. MCCURRY: Well, we've seen the news reports about the allegation, sure. I'm not going to talk about -- I mean, I'm not sure, nor would I be able to comment on any information related to the type of information the Congressman referred to. That is stuff that we don't comment in public about, even if the Congressman chooses to.
Q The Congressman says that they were based on intercepted phone conversations. So do you want to talk about intercepted phone conversations?
MR. MCCURRY: Have you ever heard me talk about intercepted phone conversations through these microphones here?
Q But is it appropriate, as far as you know, for the Congressman to talk about intercepted phone conversations?
MR. MCCURRY: It's highly unusual.
Q Let me follow up on this. So far, about a half a dozen of the President's former fundraisers or contributors have fled the country; and more than a dozen others, including John Huang, are taking the 5th on grounds that their testimony can incriminate them. Does that trouble the President that so many people appear to have something to hide?
MR. MCCURRY: Well, I don't know what it suggests, but the President has long felt that people should cooperate and he has publicly urged the people, cooperate with the legitimate inquiries that are underway. Yet, each of the people that you refer to are represented by counsel and people are also entitled to legal representation. So they should really speak through their counsel.
Q Yeah, but, Mike, above and beyond whether the White House urges them to cooperate, I'm saying does it bother the President that so many people seem to have something to hide?
MR. MCCURRY: I don't know that he makes a judgment that people have something to "hide." I think he knows that they have lawyers. Their lawyers give legal advice to each of these people and they have to really speak for themselves. The President is troubled by the fact that any time there is not the kind of cooperation that he has requested -- and clearly there may be some questions whether there's sufficient levels of cooperation underway -- but that is a source of concern to him.
He would like these various inquiries to go forward and come to some resolution so that we can move on to what is important -- the solution. The solution is going to be campaign finance reform at the end of the day, and the sooner we get to that point, the better.
Q One more question on this, Mike, if I may. Republicans want to offer immunity to some of the lower level players. Does the White House have any objection to that?
MR. MCCURRY: I think that's -- I don't know that we have taken a position on that, I haven't talked to anyone here about that question.
Q So we can say that the White House doesn't object?
MR. MCCURRY: I didn't say -- we don't have a position on the question. That's really a decision that has to be made by the committees and --
Q So if they make the decision that they grant immunity --
MR. MCCURRY: Look, the Justice Department may have some interest in that question, too. I just am not taking a position here, in front of the White House, on it. But the Justice Department, according to some of the news accounts I've seen, have been in some type of discussion with the committee on that question.
Q But irrespective of whatever Gerald Solomon is making his allegation, his letter and his public comments, does the White House -- does the Clinton administration have any reason to believe that John Huang was providing classified information to the Lippo Group?
MR. MCCURRY: I'm not going to comment on what the Clinton administration might have reason to believe, because it involves, according to the Congressman, things that I can't comment about publicly.
Q Mike, is the President concerned that Mr. Huang might have used him or used their friendship for nefarious purposes? I mean, what about that aspect of it?
MR. MCCURRY: Oh, I think we've said on occasion over time that the President is concerned any time that it appears that someone may have taken advantage of a relationship. I'm not suggesting that's the case with respect to Mr. Huang. I think that has to be established by those who are looking into these matters appropriately and we're not going to second guess those investigations.
But, of course, he would take issue with anyone misrepresenting relationships with him or taking advantage of the relationship or employment in government or work within the national committee for purposes that are not proper.
Q On a different subject. On the speech on Saturday, two questions. One, did the President personally call these seven people and offer -- ask them to serve on the task force?
MR. MCCURRY: I honestly don't know. Do you know?
MR. LOCKHART: I don't.
MR. MCCURRY: He has talked -- he obviously knows a number of them and has talked to a number of them from time to time. Governor Winter, for example, participated in some of the work that went into developing the initiative itself, because he's been here at the White House on occasion for some of the meetings -- as have, I think, one or two of the other participants. But I don't believe he made the calls directly.
Q And, secondly, where does the speech writing stand? Is the outside consultation over? Is the President -- is it written?
MR. MCCURRY: The President has been working with those who are helping him with the speech -- in fact, they were doing some work on it today. He's got a draft that probably is three or four or five or six or seven drafts away from being near final. And I think Joe's hope is that maybe we can get something of it, at least an advance text or excerpts tomorrow night, given the deadline problem on Saturday.
Q How long is it going to be?
MR. MCCURRY: Appropriate length for a graduation speech. (Laughter.) The draft now, as it is, looks like it's in the half hour range.
Q This 4:30 p.m. event tomorrow with the board, the advisory board that he's going to do, what exactly will he do? What will that event be? Will he speak?
MR. LOCKHART: It actually speaks a little bit to George's question. I don't know to what extent he's spoken to each of the members, but he did ask for some time before they went out to San Diego to get together with them. The group is going to travel out to San Diego for the speech. And so we put --
Q On Air Force One?
MR. LOCKHART: Yes. And so -- he wanted some time before they got out to San Diego to spend some time. It's more of an organizing get-together. It will give them some time to talk a little bit, and then they'll go out tomorrow -- tomorrow evening.
Q And will the President be making a public appearance with them as well tomorrow?
MR. LOCKHART: Tomorrow?
MR. LOCKHART: No, just -- it will be just the meeting here, and then they'll go to Andrews to go out to San Diego.
Q Will there be coverage of this meeting?
MR. LOCKHART: Yes, we'll do some sort of pool at the top of it.
Q Are all of them in town now?
MR. LOCKHART: I don't think so, no. I'm not sure that -- I know that there is one who is from Washington, but they'll all be making their way here. I also know Chris Edley is in town on another matter.
Q Mike, I noticed on the schedule for Saturday --
MR. MCCURRY: I wouldn't be surprised, too, if they all end up kibitzing on the speech at the last minute too. That would not surprise me too much -- this may tamper with our advanced text concept. (Laughter.)
Q What's the nature of the President's --
MR. MCCURRY: I hadn't thought of that until just now.
Q What's the nature of the President's remarks to the Institute on Oceanography that he's talking to after the commencement speech I noticed on the schedule.
MR. LOCKHART: It's a lunch.
MR. MCCURRY: Is that a luncheon, probably with --
MR. LOCKHART: Yes, that's a lunch, sort of a reception of people the university has brought together.
Q It's not a --
MR. LOCKHART: No, it'll just be a short --
MR. MCCURRY: No new pronouncements on oceanography or global warming or -- (laughter) --
Q Frictions between the various marine species. (Laughter.)
MR. MCCURRY: Pacific Salmon issues --
Q Are you going?
MR. MCCURRY: I've got a family event in New Jersey. Mr. Lockhart is going to be in charge.
Q What's today speech, this afternoon's -- this topic, the roundtable?
MR. MCCURRY: They were still working on it. It's -- it will be kind of for the members of the Business Roundtable -- the President's reflection on the status of the economy; how we got to the place where we are today; the contributions they are making to the health of the economy, to the success of welfare reform. He'll also talk about the importance of free trade and the overall economic progress that we've seen over the last four and a half years. And we'll specifically talk about the importance of fast track authority and normal trade relations with China.
And then I think -- the plan is for him to then take a little detour -- this is where you can wake up and pay attention -- into the tax bill and have a little more to say on the tax bill. That's the plan. Now, I'm not -- we were still waiting to get the President's approval for that.
Q And there's a Denver briefing tomorrow, or Monday?
MR. MCCURRY: The big hitters that want to brief are insisting that they can't do it until Monday, which means that the minor league briefers, perhaps me, will probably have to try to give you a little more for those of who have got to write for the weekend.
But Secretary Albright and --
Q But Monday as far as the big players? Monday will be the big players?
MR. MCCURRY: We're trying to get Secretary Albright in, Sandy and --
MS. LUZZATTO: And Dan Tarullo.
MR. MCCURRY: And Dan Tarullo, who's the sherpa. And Secretary Rubin, and maybe we'll get a couple of others coming along to entertain us.
Q Mike, this is one of those for the record questions, if you will. Why has it been so long since we've had an opportunity to have any kind of exchange between reporters in this room with the President?
MR. MCCURRY: We haven't had a pool spray recently, but part of the reason for that is the President -- and I apologize to those of you who have not been part of this -- he's been doing a number of interviews. And we -- the way we have to conduct this adversarial and I hope amicable relationship is not only through press conferences -- which we're having in just over a week -- pool sprays, which we do from time to time. But I also think it's important for the President to have opportunities to talk one-on-one individually with news organizations. And we've been doing quite a lot of that.
Q There have been events that have happened here over the past couple of weeks since our last news conference in London that traditionally have been pool events -- interviews aside -- visiting foreign leaders, Congressional delegations, other things.
MR. MCCURRY: We just handle different kinds of events with different types of press coverage arrangements all the time.
Q You're not trying to keep us away from the President, are you?
MR. MCCURRY: No, I mean, we're trying to give some individual news organizations some opportunity to do more enterprising, exclusive stuff, frankly, to get a little bit of play.
Q Are you promoting the interviews for one subject?
MR. MCCURRY: We can't tell news organizations what to ask. We say -- we sort of say, the President is interested in talking about X, Y, or Z. Obviously, we've set up some interviews with respect to the race initiative. And he's got something to say on that. And we're trying to give some people a glimpse of his thinking before the speech on Saturday.
But people -- it's a free country and a free press is entitled to ask whatever questions they freely arrive at.
Q Sure am glad of that. (Laughter.)
MR. MCCURRY: It's one of the hallmarks of our democracy. It's one of the things that make us strong. It's one of the reasons why we gather here every day.
THE PRESS: Thank you.
END 2:22 P.M. EDT