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Office of the Press Secretary

For Immediate Release December 2, 1997
                              PRESS BRIEFING
                              BY MIKE MCCURRY

The Briefing Room

2:05 P.M. EST

MR. MCCURRY: Where should we start today?

Q Yeltsin.

MR. MCCURRY: Hold on, before we get to President Yeltsin.

Just one follow-up on the race initiative. I had wanted to try to have Bruce Reed come down and tell you a little bit about some of the specifics the President is going to get into tomorrow. One thing the President will talk about in substantive policy terms tomorrow is a new opportunity agenda that we can create for impoverished urban areas -- actually, this could apply to rural areas, too. But he's going to be talking a little bit about the concept of education opportunity zones which will reward school districts in both poor rural and poor urban areas that undertake school reforms that help kids meet the kind of high quality educational standards the President has talked about. That's a little teaser, and those of you who are interested in doing a set-up for tomorrow may want to give Bruce a call.

Q What's the racial element in that -- or the race element in that?

MR. MCCURRY: Well, obviously, it helps significant areas where there are concentrations of minority enrollments in school districts, particularly in urban areas. But it will have a specific application, I think, in challenging kids across racial lines to meet the kind of standards the President wants. This is something that very often within minority communities is pointed to as a way to achieve educational excellence, to challenge them to do better.

Q With money?

MR. MCCURRY: There will be some specific ways, consistent with the kind of empowerment zone, enterprise zone concept that you can take these educational opportunity zones and give some incentives to school districts to measure up to those standards. But we'll leave that for tomorrow.

Q You might have just said this, but it will also benefit for poor whites?

MR. MCCURRY: Absolutely -- who are in the same kind of school districts.

Q Are you talking about the standards, meaning the tests that haven't been developed yet? What standards? The 3rd grade reading and 4th --

MR. MCCURRY: There will be -- if you call Mr. Reed, you'll be able to get some help on this.

Q Is this going to take legislation, Mike?

MR. MCCURRY: If you call Mr. Reed, he will help you out on it.

Q Money?

Q Do you want to handle questions?

MR. MCCURRY: I don't want to handle questions on this, as you may gather.

Okay. I want to announce some travel. The President is going to go to New York on December 9th. He'll overnight in New York December 9th.

Q Why?

MR. MCCURRY: These are all in connection with some fundraisers, but there are other events that are in planning stages, too, that we'll be announcing.

December 10th, he will have some events in New York City during the day. Wednesday night, December 10th, he will overnight in the Miami, Florida, area. And then Thursday, December 11th, he will have events in the Miami area, back to Washington Thursday night. So you can get your bags packed for that.

Q All for fundraising?

MR. MCCURRY: A combination of fundraising and other events. We're going to be raising money, Helen. You've got to level with the American people. Unless you want public financing, we're going to be out there raising money.

Q This is relentless. Relentless.

MR. MCCURRY: Absolutely, it's relentless. We are facing a relentless campaign on the other side.

Q The President just made some political spots for Lee Brown in Houston. Do you know anything about that?

MR. MCCURRY: I don't, I'm sorry. I'll have to look into it. Does anyone know? We can check into it for you.

Q Are these DNC events?

MR. MCCURRY: It doesn't say here. I imagine like we've been doing, probably a combination of DNC, DCCC, DSCC.

Q How about Yeltsin's proposal -- not proposal, announcement?

MR. MCCURRY: If I understand correctly, Mr. Yastrzhembsky clarified those remarks somewhat -- Mr. Sergei Yastrzhembsky who, I should point out, is not only the presidential spokesman, but also the National Security Adviser. Is that right, Eric? (Laughter.) A precedent that I have raised frequently with Mr. Berger.

Q You mean, he's not going to cut his nuclear arsenal?

MR. MCCURRY: I think there's been a clarification that makes it a little more difficult for the United States government at this point to assess those remarks. It's important to us that we stay on the arms control agenda that we've well established by now with the Russian Federation: ratification of START II by the Duma; continuing discussions about the follow-on, START III, along the lines that the Presidents first outlined in Helsinki.

Q So you don't believe him?

MR. MCCURRY: I think that, as I just said, that there has been an important clarification that makes it wise for us to further assess these initial reports. That was said diplomatically, right?

Q Mike, in retrospect does the President wish he had included people with different views earlier on in the race initiative? I mean, most critics would say it's gotten off to a pretty slow start, we've had all this talk and so forth, and now he's bringing in different viewpoints. Does he wish he'd done that earlier?

MR. MCCURRY: Probably would have been some utility to that. But, look, let's face it, this is an effort that the President had always designed to take at least a year. It is one in which a lot of different gears have to mesh and it's one in which the President wanted the assistance of a really splendid board of advisors who could assist him. And it's one that's going to have to take concentrated work as we go into next year.

Now, it may have been more useful to bring people like Ward Connerly or folks like that into the mix earlier, but the fact that we will do that appropriately as we go ahead doesn't diminish the value of having that type of discussion.

Q You say "at least a year"; does that mean that the White House is considering extending this beyond the original year mandate?

MR. MCCURRY: Well, I think the President has not ever suggested that we are going to solve the problem of race relations in America in one year. He wants to write the report that he intends to write in that framework. But I think that he's got a lifelong commitment to this issue and I think that will extend beyond the one year of this initiative.

Q But not the reporting process? You still expect --

MR. MCCURRY: The report, I think he's still working on the timeline that he has outlined.

Q Mike, is the President concerned about these anti-tobacco lawyers demanding a 25 percent fee? There's a story on the front page of the Washington Post today saying a group of lawyers in Florida are demanding a 25 percent contingency fee on that tobacco deal. Is he concerned that perhaps lawyers are getting too greedy on this tobacco deal and that there may be some repercussions and it may cause things to fall apart?

MR. MCCURRY: I think that he has acknowledged that they are one participant in a collective process that arrived at that settlement, but all the participants have to mutually agree to the terms of any settlement. And then, of course, now we're moving it into the phase in which Congress will look at questions like that. I haven't heard them address that particular question.

Q Is there a concern that fights or squabbling over the fees may cause things to unravel?

MR. MCCURRY: Well, you're referring to the issue of whether or not the federal government ought to collect a share in some of these state settlements --

Q Just the whole issue of the idea of the lawyers sort of fighting over their grab.

MR. MCCURRY: Well, under federal law the federal government has to seek a share of the proceeds that are recovered by the states for state Medicare claims -- excuse me, state Medicaid claims. We've tangled a bit with the states because of that, but we are required by law, if I understand correctly, to recover for all taxpayers in the country a portion that all U.S. taxpayers donate to the provision of federally subsidized medical coverage under Medicaid, regardless of what state is actually picking up the other portion of the share payment.

Q Is the President going to ask ATF or the Justice Department to look into the shootings in Paducah? Is he looking at investigating this?

MR. MCCURRY: I don't know the answer to that, Terry. I would have to check and see if there had been any -- with local law enforcement -- any component part that involved federal authorities. I'm not aware of that, I haven't seen that reported. I don't believe there's been any indication of a federal role there.

Clearly, the President has done a great deal of work to try to curb gun violence as it affects all American young people. And I think the spirit of his remarks today is we just all have to work collectively to deal with tragedies like we witnessed in Kentucky.

Q Does he see the need for more gun control? I mean, does this give rise to that?

MR. MCCURRY: He sees the need for the types of measures that we have supported, not only the bans on assault weapons that were part of the Crime Bill, but the continuing effort to create zero tolerance for guns and firearms on school campuses. You heard the President on that issue often and that's something that we continue to believe is important for local school districts to implement.

Q On the line item veto, now he has wound up using it for the -- what are his views on it? He used it very minimally --

MR. MCCURRY: Well, it depends -- minimally, in the view of some, and too much, in the view of others. So I think that we struck a balance that was proper. The President respected the constitutional prerogatives that Congress has when it comes to the nation's purse strings. But he also recognized the utility of having that authority and using it in those select circumstances where he felt his own capacity under law required him to use the veto.

I think he feels like we've struck a good balance. It was something of a learning experience, going from the initial line item vetoes on the mil con bill through the last line item veto that he announced for the year today. But I think on balance, the President found it to be an effective, valuable tool to protect the interests of U.S. taxpayers and one that will have the desired deterrent effect in the future as Congress writes spending bills.

There will be a high incentive now for members of Congress who have got legitimate, worthy projects in their districts to work within the federal budget process, to work with the Office of Management and Budget to identify those needs and to see them incorporated in the budget-making process, including the submission of the President's own budget.

Q What's the purpose of the President's meeting today with Mayor Barry, the City Council, and the Control Board? And will there be pictures of the meeting, as in stills?

MR. MCCURRY: No, we hadn't arranged any coverage of it, although my understanding is that if participants want to be available afterward, then OMB Director Frank Raines will be available, too.

He obviously wants to build on some of the work that we launched earlier this year with the President's own assistance package and plan for the District. He wants to build on that comprehensive plan and talk to the leaders about how we can move forward, having passed very significant and historic legislation this year. I expect the President will also take the opportunity to reassert his own commitment to home rule and self-governance in the District. I think he will want to talk about the commitment that he has, personally, and that the First Lady has.

I think the First Lady will also be in attendance, correct? I believe she's planning to.

Q Tonight, you mean?

MR. MCCURRY: No, this is a meeting this afternoon with all the District leaders who will be there.

Q You've said for some time the President would do a D.C. event in December. Is this it?

MR. MCCURRY: No. On Sunday he's going to go to Metropolitan Baptist Church. He's been invited to say a few words by the pastor there, although I do not anticipate that to be a major policy address. But he's going to talk about his own commitment, as a resident of this city, to doing what we all can do to see that it's improved. It occurs on a day that's significant in the life of the city because we have the opening of a new facility that offers some promise of a revitalized downtown area. And, of course, the President will take the opportunity to participate in the opening of that facility tonight.

Q Mike, when the President was asked this morning about Janet Reno's pending decision, he talked about the need for the Justice Department and the FBI to basically get back to work, to other, more serious matters. Does he think that there has been too much time, too much energy, too many resources spent on this investigation into campaign finance?

MR. MCCURRY: I haven't talked to him about that specifically. I think the point he was making today was that there was an enormous amount of work to do in law enforcement to protect the interests of the American people. And that's, first and foremost, the responsibility that he has as chief executive and that the Justice Department has, which is to protect the safety, livelihood, and health of the American people, and that that is ultimately the business that that Department is in. And it will be good when we are not so focused on one particular issue and do the broad range of work that's necessary to protect the American people.

Q But the implication was that this has been a distraction --

Q Or a waste of time.

MR. MCCURRY: You're in a better position to judge whether you've been distracted by that than I am. We have not been.

Q Has it affected the workings of -- you know, the President himself has said several times that he's not wanted to call Janet Reno because he doesn't want to appear to be influencing her, so has it affected the law enforcement --

MR. MCCURRY: I think he pretty well indicated that today. I mean, he said that he has -- to avoid the appearance of any effort to influence that decision in an improper way, he has refrained from contact with her. And I think aside from calling her and wishing her well when she had a little temporary illness the other day, he has not had extensive contact with her -- partly for that reason.

Q So, Mike, the implication then is we can expect a warmer, more cozy relationship between these two?

MR. MCCURRY: No, I think that the implication from the President's remarks is that everyone will get back to the work of protecting the American people from crime that they face, from criminal acts that affect the livelihood of the American people.

Q -- that that work has been affected by him not talking to her.

Q I want to ask a clarification on a point the President made today and has made repeatedly that he has not put any outside pressure on the Attorney General in reaching this decision. Why does he not count as outside pressure the contacts his own lawyers have had with the Attorney General's Office -- filing briefs, expressing opinions, et cetera? Why is that not --

MR. MCCURRY: I'm not aware that they have filed any briefs. I think on the particular matter that she has under review they have made available information requested by the Department in the analysis of the matter that's been under review, if I understand correctly. Mr. Kendall can address that further.

Q But as his advocate, has Mr. Kendall not tried to make the point that the law does not apply? Is he not essentially making an argument?

MR. MCCURRY: I can not honestly say, because I have not had contact with Mr. Kendall on this subject, whether or not that argumentation was entertained by the Attorney General or whether it was simply fact-finding. You'd have to pose that question to Mr. Kendall. But the President was very clear, and I think would believe it to be clear, that that doesn't involve any undue political pressure on her, to simply have an attorney in a position to represent the President as client when fact and material questions are asked by the Justice Department in connection with addressing this particular inquiry.

Q Just one -- how is that different from the kind of political pressure that the President is talking about?

MR. MCCURRY: Well, everyone who is going through an inquiry process like this at the Justice Department is entitled to have legal representation. It's much different to turn around and threaten the Attorney General with impeachment or say you're going to call her up or engage in some of the more robust rhetoric that we've seen even this past weekend. I think that's an entirely different matter.

Q Mike, you said the President has had at avoid contact with her, but does he believe that avoiding contact with her has had some kind of an impact on the law enforcement work of the administration? That's what we're asking.

MR. MCCURRY: I just am not in a position to judge. I don't want to get into that.

Q What do you think of the Burton committee's plans to have Reno and Freeh --

MR. MCCURRY: Predictable. And this -- nothing changes tomorrow or the day after. They will continue these partisan-based attacks and we fully expect that to start full-bore this afternoon probably and just continue on. It's been -- members of Congress, some members of Congress have devoted their entire service here in Washington to exactly that.

Q Who would be formally informed of any decision? Would it be the White House Counsel or Kendall?

MR. MCCURRY: If I understand correctly, the Attorney General has the requirement to communicate with the three-judge panel and notify them of the decision, and then she can seek authority from the three-judge panel to make public whatever decision she reaches -- if I understand correctly. The Justice Department is in a better position to help you on that.

Q Even if she does decide not to appoint -- or request an appointment of a special --

MR. MCCURRY: If I understand correctly, she can ask for an extension of time, she can indicate that she's requesting an independent counsel, she can indicate that they're discontinuing the inquiry. Really, the Justice Department can help you more than I can on that.

Q Mike, even if she decides not to seek an independent counsel, the Justice Department is going to continue its investigation in the matter surrounding this --


Q -- not specifically the phone calls. Does the President then not consider talking with her while that's going on to be an issue or a problem?

MR. MCCURRY: I think the President, related to any ongoing investigation that they have, is not going to do anything to impede an ongoing investigation of the Department.

Q So he wouldn't necessarily contact her even after today's decision?

MR. MCCURRY: He has contact with her from time to time on matters that clearly don't fall within the purview of any investigation that would be of concern -- matters like the ones we're discussing here.

Q I'm just surprised that you're not able to say that the law enforcement work of the administration is not affected by this. I'm just --

MR. MCCURRY: Well, because I don't know -- I can't make that judgment. If the President had some notion that he wanted to look at a particular matter and felt constrained to call the Attorney General, that may have some impact. I don't --

Q Doesn't that raise the question that --

MR. MCCURRY: That's a hypothetical question and kind of hard to answer.

Q Mike, with the political changes in India and Pakistan, is the President still going to the region -- and also, because the Prime Minister of India has resigned and the President of Pakistan was sacked by the Prime Minister, the Parliament?

MR. MCCURRY: The President still plans to make the journey that he indicated he would make during the course of 1998. We had not settled on any timing for that trip. I'd note that the President often travels to countries which are undergoing changes of leadership. That happens in democracies and it's one that does not interrupt the good, bilateral relations the United States enjoys with other countries around the world.

Q But, Mike, there is a story printed in Indian newspapers that -- who made the statement that the President is not going because of the changes, critical changes in India?

MR. MCCURRY: Who made such a statement?

Q Yes. Where did the story come from, because according to the White House and officials in Washington, the President is not going to India.

MR. MCCURRY: I'm not aware of any change in the President's plans to travel next year.

Q There's a story in the Hindustan Times.

MR. MCCURRY: Well, you can ask some of your colleagues here, but they are frequently misled by sources that are ill-informed. (Laughter.)

We have not indicated timing and we have not made any decisions related to timing. And we would, of course, want to have a trip that would be fruitful and productive from the viewpoint of engaging with the leadership of both countries. But we certainly do plan to make that trip during 1998.

Q If the Attorney General follows with what has been suggested by the prosecutors at the Justice Department and does not appoint an independent counsel, will it be seen as a legal victory, a political victory, or both by the White House?

MR. MCCURRY: You will all make that interpretation, we won't.

Q Well, what's yours?

MR. MCCURRY: I don't -- I, frankly, don't think this matter ends. I think it will continue to be a subject of discussion. It will continue to be, as you've already pointed out, a matter of inquiry for the Justice Department. It will continue to be a source of partisan political attacks on the President and continue to be an item which some news organizations choose to investigate. I mean, I don't think anything is going to change much -- to be candid, and that's my candid view.

Q Mike, does the President still have full confidence in Freeh?

MR. MCCURRY: The President addressed that, in a sense, today, by suggesting that all the people who are responsible for law enforcement work need to work together and need to protect the American people and well serve the American people.

Q But does he still have full confidence?

Q When I asked him whether he still could not recall making any phone calls from the Oval Office, he said, well, I gave a deposition on that -- but we don't know what's in the deposition.

MR. MCCURRY: Well, that's not for us to release what's in the custody of the Justice Department.

Q No, but this was a direct question.

MR. MCCURRY: And he's answered that direct question.

Q I don't think he did.

MR. MCCURRY: He's answered it, if not standing here, at least in some setting in which he was questioned by you.

Q Then why didn't he say, I stand by what I said before?

MR. MCCURRY: It is exactly what he did say. He said, I answered that question and I have answered it in the past. I think that's -- I don't have the exact transcript but that was almost exactly what he said.

Q That he still can't recall making any calls?

MR. MCCURRY: I'm not in a position to repeat his deposition. I wasn't there and I don't know what the contents of it are myself. But I think he's addressed himself to that question clearly.

Q The comments you just cited on -- his comments about people getting back to work really doesn't tell me whether he has full confidence in Freeh or not. Can I take another run at that?

MR. MCCURRY: I think I just answered that question. It was posed back here.

Q The comments don't -- what you cited does not answer the question about whether he has full confidence in him.

MR. MCCURRY: It's about as good as I'm going to do for you.

Okay. Anything else?

Q Yes, one more. Because of Kasi's death sentence by the jury and on January 23rd the judge will decide whether he will keep the jury's decision or not, Kasi's friends and sympathizers back home in Pakistan are threatening more killings, that Americans will be killed if he is really going to be put to death by the American system. And still the President is thinking of going to -- especially to Pakistan?

MR. MCCURRY: Well, I would note that the Secretary of State has traveled in that region under the same outrageous set of threats. The President is well protected when he travels. We do not believe that that sentiment is a sentiment that is shared by the people of Pakistan. We enjoy good, fruitful, and productive relations with the people of Pakistan and the government of Pakistan. And the President is determined to see that relationship flourish. And I -- given the extreme views of some, there's no reason to set that aside now.

We obviously will always assess the security environment when the President travels anywhere. And we would do so in a trip to any country, whether it's Pakistan or India or other countries that the President visits.

Q I just want to make sure I understand this correctly. Are you declining the opportunity to say that the President has --

MR. MCCURRY: I answered the question and that's the answer I'm going to give. And that's the answer I will stick with.

Q Is the President prepared to name his choices to the Medicare Commission?

MR. MCCURRY: He is, as he indicated today, pretty well selected who he's going to have. We will probably indicate publicly who they are shortly. But at the same time, we were trying to work through a way in which we could complete the formation of the commission by also agreeing to the naming of the chairman.

Q One more question whose answer I did not quite follow. (Laughter.) Assuming that the decision on the independent counsel reaches a conclusive stage today, does the President feel that he is somewhat unshackled in his dealings with the Attorney General or would he be observing the same reticence where this subject comes up?

MR. MCCURRY: He answered that, in a sense, by saying he hopes that people get back to the work that they've been hired to do. And I think that's what he hopes that he can do. He hopes the Attorney General can do that and that we can get on with what should come first and foremost in everyone's mind here, which is best serving the American people.

Q Mike, what are your -- what's your game plan here when she does announce?

MR. MCCURRY: I don't know what the decision is or when it will be announced, so I don't have a game plan at this point.

Q Can we expect to see the President again today? Will you be releasing paper?

MR. MCCURRY: You cannot expect it but you might, yes.

Q Mike you gave us your candid view before on what would happen if she makes the decision not to --

MR. MCCURRY: Which was pretty much nothing.

Q What do you think would happen if she made a decision to appoint an independent counsel?

MR. MCCURRY: We would continue to cooperate as we have. It's all speculative at this point and in a few short hours, presumably, you'll have the answers.

Q Do you think the same dynamic that you described before would remain in place?

MR. MCCURRY: Which dynamic?

Q The investigation on the Hill would continue as it has, that journalists would maintain the same level of interest in the story.

MR. MCCURRY: Yes. I don't see that's going to change one way or another. I mean, regardless of what the decision is -- I mean, I'll take a contrary viewpoint from someone but -- no takers.

Q Are you guys any closer to making the decision on whether or not you'll make Bill Lann Lee a recess appointment?

MR. MCCURRY: We've talked about it and thought about it and we're trying to see if we can't find a way to build some support for a straight confirmation. And failing that, I think, then we will take up the other option.

Q Do you have a deadline?

Q When would you do that?


Q You mean, when they come back?

MR. MCCURRY: No, not necessarily.

Q By the time --

Q You have a deadline, right, January 27th?

MR. MCCURRY: Yes, I guess. They come back into session the 27th, presumably?

Q Something like that.

MR. MCCURRY: Sometime before then. But I wouldn't rule out doing it sometime this year.

All right, see you all later.

END 2:32 P.M. EST