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Office of the Press Secretary

For Immediate Release September 15, 1997
                                PRESS BRIEFING 
                               BY MIKE MCCURRY

The Briefing Room

2:24 P.M. EDT

MR. MCCURRY: Other subjects in a moment. Let me read a statement on behalf of the President -- from the President. He says, with great disappointment I accepted Governor Bill Weld's decision today to withdraw as my nominee for ambassador to Mexico. He would have been a superb ambassador to Mexico.

The American people have not been well served during this process for several reasons. First, they have lost the opportunity of being represented in one of our most important ambassadorial positions by this outstanding public servant. Second, because Governor Weld was denied his right to a fair hearing, the American people lost their right to judge his qualifications for themselves. Third, they were denied a voice in this issue because their representatives in the United States Senate were prevented from voting on the nomination. And finally, at a time when we had been making strides towards a bipartisan foreign policy, the treatment that my nominee received reflected a divisiveness that does not well serve the American people.

Our relations with Mexico are critical to our national security and to our economy. I will now work to find a replacement for Governor Weld who will meet the same high standards he would have set.

So ends the statement from the President. Helen, in answer to your question, we have not designated a new nominee; there will be some time before we do so, and in many senses, our review process is back at the starting point now.

Q What has this episode done to President Clinton's relationship with Senator Helms?

MR. MCCURRY: Well, we certainly tried those relationships, but at the same time, we, throughout this process, have said that while we were fighting hard for Governor Weld, we hoped that we were fighting fair and square. And we hope the Chairman will recognize that and we can continue to do the business that we need to do together as a country to advance America's interests in the world.

Q Does the White House agree with Governor Weld's caustic assessment of Senator Helms?

MR. MCCURRY: The President expressed himself on his sense of Chairman Helms himself the other day, and I don't want to offer a contrary viewpoint to the one the President offered.

Q Mike, kind of on the same issue, the Governor said that part of the reason that he was leaving is because he didn't want to rupture the relationship between the administration and the Republican leadership in the Senate. And yet, how else can Trent Lott, for example, view this in-your-face approach that the Governor took today, to the degree of even saying that Lott's just carrying water for Jesse?

MR. MCCURRY: I'm not sure I understand the question or what was in your face about what the Governor decided to do today. I think he decided to act in the best interest of the country he has served and would have served well, and he did so knowing that there are many important issues that a Republican Congress and a Democratic President are going to have to work together on.

I think if there was any threat, it was the one that, as the President said the other day, was explicitly made by the Chairman.

Q Mike, given the state of relations between the United States and Mexico, does the President feel that it will be better to have a career diplomat or a political appointee as ambassador?

MR. MCCURRY: I'm not going to speculate on who the President at this point might turn to for what is arguably one of the most important ambassadorial postings that we have anywhere in the world, but it will be someone of high caliber, someone who respects the importance of the relationship, and someone who can bring dignity to the mutual search for answers to the problems that together we work on with the government of Mexico.

Q Mike, given that even if the battle had been fought and even if he had won and were confirmed somehow, the cost would have been very high -- given that, was there any sense of relief here at the White House that he made this decision and that it's all over now?

MR. MCCURRY: I think the predominant sense here was that Governor Bill Weld was someone that we were all standing with the President fighting for, and I think a lot of us probably relished that fight coming up, but at the same time, we also knew there could possibly be consequences. And I think the Governor, in a very courageous way, assessed those and did what he thought was the right thing to do.

Q Mike, Senator Helms has practically said publicly that he will expedite a hearing on the nomination of the next ambassador to Mexico. It is tradition that the White House always clears new appointments with the Chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee. Will you do that this time?

MR. MCCURRY: We will continue the process of consultation that's necessary to achieve confirmation for important postings. It's been a long time since Ambassador Jones left Mexico City and I think it's important for us now to locate and vet a candidate, but, as you all know, ambassadorial nominees, like other nominees, will need to be screened. That will be a process that will take some time and it is important to our bilateral relationship that we find an effective representative and get on with business.

Q Secretary Rubin and Trade Representative Barshefsky will be testifying on Capitol Hill Wednesday. Do you think you'll have fast track legislation --

MR. MCCURRY: I wouldn't rule that out. Let's finish up on this subject; then I've got some other housekeeping matters.

Q Will the President think twice before reaching across the aisle to suggest an appointment?

MR. MCCURRY: I think he will continue to search for the formulae that will allow us to have a bipartisan foreign policy. We, in reality, have to have that because we have a Republican Congress. But I think the President believes that this nation throughout its history has been well served when Republicans and Democrats set aside bipartisan differences as we advance all of America's interest beyond our borders. And he certainly will not rule out looking for the right person, be it a Republican or a Democrat.

Q Mike, what would you say of the interpretation that many will come to, that this was a major victory for Senator Helms over the President and he holds even greater sway now?

MR. MCCURRY: That you all are in the business of interpreting, not I, and if you make that judgment we will have to live with that verdict. But I think there are other issues where we will look to work in common endeavor with the chairman. There will be other issues where we will sometimes be in disagreement. We hope we can prevail, as we believe we would have prevailed in this instance had a majority been allowed to express its view.

Q Mike, does this episode mean that Senator Helms is at least a co-partner with the President in running American foreign policy?

MR. MCCURRY: Well, the Chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee has the role that the Chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee historically has. And the President has the role that's suggested by the U.S. Constitution.

Q Are there any regrets here in the White House, in hindsight, about the tactics that were taken by Governor Weld in fighting this fight?

MR. MCCURRY: No. He was fighting in some respects, as he has just said, for his reputation and for his nomination in the court of public opinion. And that's a different kind of fight than the one that normally occurs in the cloistered, marbled halls of Washington. But that's the nature of this fight and the nature of this nomination.

Q There was apparently some discussion in early August as to whether Mr. Weld would like to go to India or some place else.

MR. MCCURRY: I'm not aware -- maybe you know of some serious conversation. I think the conversations the President had with Governor Weld were almost exclusively confined to what a good posting Mexico would be for him and the Governor's enthusiasm about being sent to Mexico City.

Q So there was no discussion of any other place?

MR. MCCURRY: I'm not aware that that was a serious consideration by the President.

Q Was there any concern within the White House, perhaps of the Vice President, that in elevating Weld's fight here it's given him a new rival?

MR. MCCURRY: I haven't heard -- being in most of the meetings that occurred here with the nominee at the White House, I haven't heard that consideration raised once.

Q Mike, to what extent do the political types on the staff -- to what extent do they take pleasure over the moderate versus conservative wedge or split that was driven by this nomination. And to what extent was that a factor, a motivating factor in this from the start?

MR. MCCURRY: I think the smarter people in politics around here know that that's a hard thing to measure and they probably didn't make any judgments one way or another.

Q Did Governor Weld make a wise decision today?

MR. MCCURRY: I think he did. He made a decision in the interest of his country and one that he's just told you about. I think you can't go wrong when you do what you think is best.

Q Any reason why the President decided not to join the Governor at this statement?

MR. MCCURRY: We haven't routinely done that, and the President went on -- he interrupted his schedule that he was pursuing in order to see Governor Weld, and I think the Governor and the President were satisfied that this was the right way to proceed.

Q Mike, is the President disappointed about the lack of public outcry about what happened in the Senate last Friday?

MR. MCCURRY: I think the President realistically wonders whether most Americans have really followed this matter as closely as maybe we have here in Washington. (Laughter.)

Q Was it Weld's decision alone, or were there suggestions from the White House that maybe it was time to reconsider the whole thing?

MR. MCCURRY: His decision alone. To my knowledge, the only one at the White House that knew he was even thinking of this course of action was Mr. Podesta, who had a telephone conversation with the Governor very late last night, at least knew that he was thinking about or wanted to think about it overnight, and the first we knew about it here was this morning just after 9:30 a.m. when the Governor called Mr. Podesta to pass on that news and it was very shortly communicated to the President after that. You can attest to the fact that I was caught a little unawares this morning myself.

Q Can you give any insight on the telephone conversation between the President and Senator Lott on Saturday?

MR. MCCURRY: I would prefer to keep the substantive detail of that private. To my knowledge, the subject of appointing Governor Weld during the recess was not a subject of the call.

Q How long was the meeting today between the President and Mr. Weld?

MR. MCCURRY: It was relatively brief, but the President had spent some time earlier at least reviewing the Governor's intention with his staff and they had what was both kind of a courtesy call, a thank-you, and an opportunity for the Governor to formally communicate his decision a short while ago -- maybe 10, 15 minutes.

Q Mike, after the discussion with Mr. Podesta about Governor Weld's decision to withdraw, did you or Mr. Podesta or somebody like that make the offer of the use of this room to make this announcement? It's rather unusual to have somebody come here.

MR. MCCURRY: It is unusual, but I think a number of us here felt it would be appropriate, given the strong support the White House has had throughout this nomination fight, for it to end here where, obviously, it began.

Q I suppose this means that you are not going to appoint anyone as a replacement who would possibly rub Senator Helms the wrong way.

MR. MCCURRY: Well, I wouldn't rule that out. We have serious policy disagreements with Chairman Helms and we will continue to have serious policy disagreements, and Senator Helms will no doubt continue from time to time to oppose nominations the President sends. But we certainly hope that we can achieve a working relationship in which the Senate can fulfill its constitutional duty, and the President, as he says, is clearly disappointed that has not happened in this case.

Q Mike, was the Mexican government advised before the announcement was made public he was withdrawing his nomination?

MR. MCCURRY: I'll have to check. I doubt that, this being an internal matter of deliberation within our government, but we will of course proceed with the respectful communications, government to government, as we proceed from here, and at the proper point, secure agrement from the government of Mexico as we search for a new ambassador-designate.

Q Helms was upset that there was never any discussion with him prior to the announcement of Weld back when, that he said in the past the usual practice would be to run a couple of names by him and get his feedback. Any intention to do that in the future?

MR. MCCURRY: There are close consultations that we have with his staff. If I understand correctly from his staff, Chairman Helms does not routinely meet with or participate in discussions with ambassadorial designates, but at the same time this was clearly from the beginning and by the Chairman's own statements an unusual nomination.

Q Are you going to run the next possible name by him or his staff --

MR. MCCURRY: We will, as I said, respectfully continue to consult on foreign policy and will continue to handle nominations in a way that we hope will secure their confirmation.

Q Governor Weld said he wasn't going to kiss rings or other parts. Don't you find it somewhat degrading that you are in the position of having to assume that position with the Chairman? (Laughter.)

MR. MCCURRY: I don't think I'm going to bend over and answer that question. (Laughter.)

Q More seriously phrasing that question, doesn't this encourage Senator Helms in exercising a sort of one-man veto on other important items before the administration?

MR. MCCURRY: I suspect there will be some price paid on that side of the aisle for the way in which this nomination was received and considered in the Senate, and I think the reflection it makes on the Republican Majority in the Senate might make something that would cause the Senate Leadership to think twice about pursuing this type of action.

Q A quick follow-up. Senator Helms said before the nomination that he would not give a hearing if Governor Weld was nominated and that he advised the White House to nominate somebody else. Will the White House clear the next Mexico nomination with Senator Helms before --

MR. MCCURRY: I think we've been through that about three or four times now. Anything else on this?

Q I don't want to beat a dead horse on this either, but 24 hours ago the White House seemed solidly behind a nominee determined to get --

MR. MCCURRY: We were until 9:30 a.m. this morning.

Q Yes, and in 24 hours that's turned around completely on all sides. Can you give us any type of what happened in the last 24 hours?

MR. MCCURRY: Yes, the guy decided to withdraw. Okay, let's go on. Can we go on to other subjects?

Q That's a fair question.

MR. MCCURRY: He just told you he decided this morning and notified us about 9:30 this morning --

Q Did something new develop that we're unaware of that convinced him that it was going to be as damaging as he said it was? Because everything he stated was out last week.

MR. MCCURRY: Not according to the answer he already gave you on that.

Q Fast track, Mike, can we go on?

MR. MCCURRY: Let me do a couple of other things; we'll move on to other subjects. First of all, I've, thanks to the Washington Times, learned that there is some concerns about some of you about what happens if you're about to be incinerated down in your working quarters and whether or not you'd be able to make a quick exit from this wonderful room in time as it undergoes construction in and around the complex. It's obvious that you can always use the back exit; obvious that we would do everything we could in an emergency to make this sliding door open and it normally during working hours is open. But the powers that be have also decided that during the period of the construction here we will keep unlocked the colonnade entrance over here. That's to be used for your emergency purposes, no change in the ground rules around here about when you do and you don't use that door. But if any of you were worried about what might happen if a fire breaks out, that will be an exit and you can go seek refuge in the Rose Garden -- (laughter) -- if you think it's any less warm out there.

We will keep that open from roughly 7:00 in the morning until we wrap up at the end of the day, and normally it will be open until 7:00 p.m., that's when we'll do the lockup around here.

Q Fast track, Mike?

MR. MCCURRY: One more thing. I didn't get a chance to do this last week, but I wanted to pay a compliment to the General Services Administration for making good on a promise. You don't always in this government get a promise and have people work hard and get the job done. But they told us that during the course of the President's three-week vacation that they would be able to renovate this entire space, make it look nice, paint it, freshen it up, do all the construction necessary to accommodate the new member of the network pool downstairs. And, by God, they did it and I just wanted to pay tribute to Don Plummer, the White House Building Manager, and his team at the General Services Administration.

We had a particularly good working relationship with Mike Costic and Charlie Herr, who really were the ones that worked with us day in and day out, worked with your representatives on the Correspondents Association. I think a lot of planning and hard work went into making this period of construction and renovation work.

And, while most of you weren't here, I at one point thought it was a little hairy about whether they were going to get it done or not, and they did a great and superhuman job in order to get the work done. And thanks to them and thanks also to Mike Malone and his staff at the White House Administration Office.

Q It looks the same to me.

MR. MCCURRY: Good. But it looks a lot better to me, if you want to know the truth.

Fast track. I think the President has been working with his advisors and his advisors have been working hard to incorporate some of the suggestions that we've heard from members of Congress. They've been addressing themselves how best to fashion the legislation that would give the President the extension of normal negotiation authority that he needs to carry out trade negotiations that all Presidents have used in one way or another for the last 60 years to advance America's economic interests overseas. And I would suspect, perhaps, as early as sometime later this week, we might be able to say more about what specifically would be contained in legislation.

Q When do you intend to send it up to Congress?

MR. MCCURRY: Perhaps as early as later this week.

Q The President is calling it fast track, I noticed today.

MR. MCCURRY: Oh, I think he's -- it's called colloquially fast track -- I don't think most Americans know what that is, but it is the negotiating authority that Congresses give Presidents so that they can get agreements that might hold up and be ratified by the Senate.

Q Mike, can you also give us a sense of whether you think the President will make his comments on the tobacco deal before he leaves later this week?

MR. MCCURRY: I would put down a couple of quarters on the proposition that he might. Maybe I could say, almost, would. But I wasn't supposed to box him in. But I would --

Q Wednesday?

MR. MCCURRY: I can't play that card.

Q Wednesday?

MR. MCCURRY: We're running out of days in the week, I think. By Thursday, we're gone, so we've got -- tomorrow is Tuesday, then we've got Wednesday --

Q Lots of free time Wednesday.

MR. MCCURRY: I suspect he might do that sometime between Tuesday and Thursday. (Laughter.)

Q Mike, on the tobacco subject. How important does the President feel that there be legislation this year to enact what the industry and the lawyers came up with -- with some revisions, perhaps, that he'd like to see strengthening the effort to stop children from smoking?

MR. MCCURRY: I think the President believes that we need to make measurable progress towards his public health goal this year. You could do that either with codifying some of the elements of this recent discussion through legislation to be considered by Congress, or you could continue to move ahead in the form of the federal regulatory process that the President has advanced. The advantage of legislation, of course, is not subject to protracted litigation, so it would be preferable. But we'd have to realistically judge what this Congressional calendar will allow between now and the end of the year. It might entirely be possible to begin moving the ball down the field with the notion that the goal line would not be out there this year but, one way or another, the President intends to make progress to protect this nation's kids from the dangers of tobacco addiction.

Q And what are his biggest concerns about the deal that was struck a few months ago?

MR. MCCURRY: The impact on children, the impact on children and the impact on children.

Q Mike, if the new American proposal that was submitted over the weekend to the Oslo Conference on banning land mines were not to be adopted by the end of this week, would the U.S. position be to still try and get into the game with the Ottawa process until the signing of the treaty in December. In other words, not walk away at the end of this week?

MR. MCCURRY: Well, we have said all along that you can simultaneously pursue both the conference on disarmament discussions and the Ottawa process. And we recently said that we would attempt to pursue both simultaneously, and indeed, give some preference to advancing the objectives that have been placed forward in Ottawa. But as a practical matter, we will continue to pursue our interests in a ban on anti-personnel land mines subject to the exclusions that are necessary for the Commander in Chief, the President of the United States, given the unique responsibilities that we have in certain places in the world, and we'll just have to wait and see what happens. Our negotiators have put forward a response to the kind of proposal that was made, as you know, and we'll see how the negotiation goes on that in coming days.

Q Since Albright's visit to the Middle East, Netanyahu has condemned the takeover of a home -- settlers took over a home -- and also Netanyahu sort of changed his tune on settlement policy. Do you credit Albright with that shift? And what's your reaction to it?

MR. MCCURRY: All I can report to you is that the Secretary, of course, raised issues like settlements policy. She spoke to them publicly in her speech before the students at Tel Aviv. She raised the question of revenues and the return of revenues that rightfully can be collected by the Palestinian Authority, a subject the Prime Minister has also addressed today. I think the Secretary and her party have briefed at greater detail on the substance of her dialogue, but certainly these points were made and were made very strongly and made, I might say, very candidly and persuasively by the Secretary. So hopefully, they did have some effect.

Q Do you think that they did, though, considering what he --

MR. MCCURRY: The government of Israel and the office of the Prime Minister is the only one that can really answer that question for you. Yes.

Q Could you comment on the suggestions that Paula Jones' advisor is making that she is being singled out by the IRS?

MR. MCCURRY: Only to say it's only the IRS that can answer that question. We don't do tax audits here. We have never conducted or talked about or done tax audits here, and we would be -- I think I told some of you earlier today -- certifiably insane if we did so. So this is not the place to ask. Go ask the Treasury.

Q Just to follow up, you're saying that it's not possible that any member of the White House staff had any hand in promoting that investigation?

MR. MCCURRY: I just, again, would say, it's inconceivable to me. I haven't -- there are 1,500 people who work here, and I haven't asked every single one of them, but no one in any position of authority would ever allow that to happen here, because if they did, they would be looking for work pretty quickly. It goes without saying, I think. I think everyone here knows the history of previous White Houses where that happened, and everyone knows what a tragic episode it was in our history. Yes, Karen?

Q Has the White House made efforts to find out from the IRS how the investigation was --

MR. MCCURRY: We -- hands off. We don't even call the IRS to find out how they do those sorts of things -- literally. I mean, the White House Counsel's Office assured me today that there was no reason for concern here about it. But again, I'd say we do dumb things from time to time, but we are not certifiably crazy. So, don't imagine for a minute we did. Yes?

Q Did the Latin American summit have to be rescheduled to accommodate Chelsea's Spring Break?

MR. MCCURRY: I have not checked on that question, and if it would, we probably would figure out some diplomatic reason why that was not the only reason. Yes. That's it for the day. Thank you. See you tomorrow.

END 2:48 P.M. EDT