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Office of the Press Secretary

For Immediate Release February 5, 1998
                           PRESS BRIEFING
                           BY MIKE MCCURRY

                          The Briefing Room

5:10 P.M. EST

MR. MCCURRY: Well, back in my regular guise now, I brief you under my real name.

Q Mike, could I ask you -- oh, you have announcements you want to make.

MR. MCCURRY: Yes, I do have one thing. I've had several inquiries today about the tobacco legislation and the work we've been doing on the Hill to try to increase the possibility of comprehensive legislation that would achieve the President's public health objectives. But a lot of people have asked about our position on liability limits for tobacco companies, and there is no change in what we have told you here before. And we've said this many times -- I know I've said this many times from the podium -- but we said it again in testimony before Congress today.

We obviously prefer a comprehensive tobacco bill without any liability limits. We believe that tobacco companies should not have special protections and that the June 20th agreement on that point had the wrong balance. You've heard the President address that before, and you've heard the President articulate the principles that he thought should underpin any effort to legislate the settlement that had been reached by the parties.

But again, as we've said many times before, if we get everything we want in a tobacco bill, which goes to the heart of the President's public health recommendations, and if we get a comprehensive bill that addresses those principles the President identified, then reasonable limits on liability would not be a deal breaker. I've told you that here several times before.

Again, though, the President's priority is to protect public health, particularly to reduce youth smoking. We will consider legislation as a whole to determine whether it fully achieves that objective, and we will sign legislation that succeeds in meeting the public health objectives the President has identified.

Q Mike, I mean, you said before many times that reasonable limits on liability would not be a deal-breaker. But I've never heard you say that you prefer a comprehensive bill without liability limits.

MR. MCCURRY: Well, that's certainly been implied in what the President said, in particular because he didn't identify that among the principles that he thought should underpin legislation.

Q He left that conspicuously unsaid, but that's different than saying he would prefer it not be in there.

MR. MCCURRY: Well, I don't know how different that is.

Q Boris Yeltsin appears to have said it again today; a translation from Tass says that he told reporters that the use of force was not permissible and would bring on World War III.

MR. MCCURRY: Well, I don't know what World War III would look like. And I don't know that there's any force arrayed in that region that would produce that type of conflagration. In any event, that is not the desire of the United States government nor any other reasonable government in the world. It is the desire of every government that is bringing diplomacy to bear on this situation to resolve this stand-off with Saddam Hussein in a peaceful manner so that the United Nations can go on with its work, so we can address the questions about weapons of mass destruction that we have, and so that Saddam Hussein will be forced to remain in that position in which he cannot threaten and intimidate neighbors.

So I'm not sure why there is idle speculation about some type of military conflict that would be far beyond anything necessary to achieve the objectives that have been very articulated by the United States government, and that have been addressed by the UN Security Council. They've been very simple, and they can be pursued through diplomacy. They can, frankly, be resolved through diplomacy. If there's a need to bring force to bear to back up the diplomacy that's underway, it would be of the type that has been described by senior officials in our government.

Q Well, is there a problem that Boris Yeltsin keeps saying these things just as the President is trying to get allied support for the policies?

MR. MCCURRY: I think it is accurate to say that the Russian Federation is very determined to see that this matter is resolved through diplomacy. They have expended enormous diplomatic effort towards that end, through their foreign minister, through their deputy foreign minister, through others.

But in all the conversations the United States government has had with the Russian Federation, including the conversation between President Yeltsin and President Clinton, we've made it quite clear that all governments, including those -- especially those governments that are permanent members of the Security Council, ought to remain united in bringing pressure to bear on the government of Iraq to meet its international obligations. And the Russian Federation, in our opinion, has been working hard toward that end.

Q Won't Yeltsin's comments make our diplomacy efforts more difficult, because he seems to be lending support to Iraq? And also, in a related way, does China's comments that they oppose force -- the use of force also make our diplomacy more difficult?

MR. MCCURRY: I don't believe that either of those statements by either government are designed to lend support to Iraq. I think they are designed to make it clear that those two governments -- the People's Republic and the Russian Federation -- prefer a peaceful solution. Now, so do we. We are not in disagreement on that point, but we also acknowledge and recognize that there has not been a willingness by Saddam Hussein to meet his obligations, and that requires us to at least contemplate what additional measures may be necessary and to begin to plan and discuss those.

And I think if that has served to make some governments more determined to bring vigorous measures to bear on the government of Iraq to resolve this matter peacefully, that is not entirely an unwelcome development.

Q Back on tobacco, what would be a reasonable limit?

MR. MCCURRY: We are not specifying what we think a reasonable limit would be. I think that we would look at the total package in the legislation, a comprehensive bill, see what the parameters are, and assure ourselves that all the other relevant public health objectives that the President has articulated could be met. And then we would take a look carefully at whatever limits on liability were included. They would not, as I say again, necessarily be a deal breaker, even though they are not, preferably, immediately part of the package.

Q How quickly does the President plan to sign the Ronald Reagan Airport bill?

MR. MCCURRY: We received it just a short while ago, and as soon as the President acts on it, we will let you know. He has already -- as I indicated to you yesterday, we have indicated his intent to sign it.

Q Yes, but I'm sorry, how quickly? Do you anticipate that today or tomorrow?

MR. MCCURRY: As soon as he does it, we will let you know, but I can't imagine that he won't want to do it by tomorrow.

Q Mike, how much detail on the Lewinsky matter will the President be willing to go into tomorrow?

MR. MCCURRY: I think he answered that question earlier today in the pool spray.

Q Mike, on the Ronald Reagan National Airport story, we understand that a lot of D.C. residents are very, very upset, including Eleanor Holmes Norton, about this. Has he talked with her, the President talked with her about this?

MR. MCCURRY: I don't know if he has talked to her, but he is well aware of some of the arguments that were genuinely put forward by members of Congress. I think at the end, as I told you yesterday, the President believes this matter comes down to a gesture in honor of a past president and the President intends to sign the bill.

Q Do you think it embarrasses the country when the President is standing next to a foreign leader, U.S. reporters ask him mostly about the Monica Lewinsky affair?

MR. MCCURRY: Do I think it embarrasses the country? No. I think the country knows that you are all pursuing this matter and have pursued it with some zeal. And I think they frankly expect that.

Q Mike, when the President today denied legal charges -- and he specified the word "legal" in his response to a question -- did he in any way mean to revise the previous statements --

MR. MCCURRY: No, that was just simply for the benefit of the British press here who may not have followed it. He said it exactly the same way he's been saying it earlier, just prior to that moment.

Q Mike, what can you tell us about the letter that Independent Counsel Starr sent over Tuesday on the issue of executive privilege?

MR. MCCURRY: I'm not saying a thing about that letter. I think the White House Legal Counsel believes it's preferable to keep those matters, matters that are discussed confidentially. And the White House is, frankly, surprised that others have both released the letter to news organizations and discussed it.

Q Can you tell us if you've reached any agreement with the independent counsel's office as to the scope of the executive privilege of the White House?

MR. MCCURRY: There's not been any assertion of executive privilege by the President, who is the only one who can make such an assertion. And I don't believe there's been any -- I'm not aware of any questioning that has caused any specific discussion of executive privilege.

Q Justice says he's going to come back tomorrow. Is that because there are other questions that had to be reserved for --

MR. MCCURRY: I have no knowledge of what his testimony was before the grand jury, or what he was asked.

Q Mike, why, after several weeks of not commenting on the substance of particular allegations, did the White House issue a comment yesterday -- or you comment on The Wall Street Journal story?

MR. MCCURRY: I made the comment on the practice of the craft of journalism, not about the specifics of this story.

Q Back on tobacco, do your comments today indicate that you think The Wall Street Journal story that described or purported to describe the White House position on liability was incorrect or misleading?

MR. MCCURRY: No, I just think I thought it was necessary to make it quite clear, as a response to some of the inquiries we were getting, what our position is.

Q If I can just follow up on that question, Mr. Podesta and others that are going from the White House to the grand jury to testify, have they been given instructions that there are certain questions that they are to come back to the White House and not answer immediately?

MR. MCCURRY: Well, I will not answer that question specifically with respect to Mr. Podesta. I do not know the answer. I can tell you generally what the practice is when any White House employee is called to an evidentiary proceeding. The reason why the White House Legal Counsel becomes involved in the process is to protect the institutional prerogatives of the presidency. And it is often the practice that White House Legal Counsel will confer with legal counsel to any individual employee and discuss and raise issues of potential concern with respect to the constitutional prerogatives of the institution of the presidency.

I don't want to confirm that that's happened in the case of Mr. Podesta. That would be up to him, his attorney, and the Legal Counsel to address. But I can certainly describe for you the general practice.

Q The President issued a statement today praising the Dodd child care proposal, but that proposal contains a provision in it to give a tax break to stay-at-home parents. So does his support also extend to that provision?

MR. MCCURRY: I'll have to check specifically on it. The statement we issued did not address that specific point, but we can

MR. TOIV: We've praised a couple different proposals.

MR. MCCURRY: We have -- as Barry points out, we've praised other proposals, but we'll check on that particular provision.

Q Mike, what will happen with the President's trip to Africa if Bill Bennett's request is approved to move Paula Jones' court case up to the 20th of March?

MR. MCCURRY: I'm not aware that there would be any change or any need to change the President's plans.

Q Have you heard anything about the Satcher nomination coming to worse trouble? Is it still -- do you still think it's viable?

MR. MCCURRY: Well, we have been working very hard to present the qualifications of this very, very talented public health official to the Senate. We have been reasonably pleased with the progress we've been making in our consultations. Of course, we have to continue to work hard, but we have some degree of confidence that if we could move to a confirmation vote, that the votes would be there for confirmation. And we also think we could probably end any filibuster if one arises.

Q So it's still alive?

MR. MCCURRY: We hope more than just alive. We hope it's nearly done.

Q You've complained before about leaks from the grand jury. If Congressman Conyers asks Janet Reno to investigate Starr for violating grand jury secrecy rules, does the White House support that?

MR. MCCURRY: Well, I would prefer to wait and see what Congressman Conyers suggests, if anything. But you're correct, we have expressed our concern and we've seen, even as recently as today and yesterday, news reports that specifically cite as source individuals within the independent counsel's office. And that's all -- they're pursuing matters, as Mr. Starr said today, that are now grand jury proceedings. And, if I'm not mistaken, it's against -- if not against the law, certainly against the regulations and guidelines that govern prosecutors to have discussions outside the grand jury proceeding about the nature of the evidence that's being gathered.

Q Can I just follow up on that?

MR. MCCURRY: On that? Okay.

Q Would it be inappropriate for either the White House Counsel or Mr. Kendall to make a request like that to the Attorney General?

MR. MCCURRY: I don't know what are the proper ways in which one would pursue that. There may be things involving bar regulations or other things that I'm just not familiar with, not being a lawyer. So I'd have to look into that.

Q How big a part of Mr. Blair's visit will be dealing with Northern Ireland? And does the President think peace talks have a better chance with him?

MR. MCCURRY: I'd say that because -- as we indicated to some of you earlier today, because the President and the Prime Minister devoted some portion of their working lunch to just that topic, it reflects the importance we attach to the process that the government of the United Kingdom and the Republic of Ireland are pursuing. The President has enormous respect for the work that Prime Minister Blair has done on the Northern Ireland peace process, and today wanted to both reaffirm his own personal commitment to do anything he can to help advance the process, and also to learn more from the Prime Minister about ways in which the United States could be most helpful at this time.

So the fact that that was the three -- they chose only three topics to really spend significant quantities of time on in their working lunch, even though they've discussed now -- including the ride they just had to the high school -- a number of issues today. But the fact that they spent considerable time on Northern Ireland and obviously on Iraq demonstrates the degree of importance to which the United States government attaches the work that can be done collectively on that process.

Q If I could follow up on April's question, or your answer to April's question -- do you mean to say that the President does not intend to attend the trial of Paula Jones' lawsuit against him?

MR. MCCURRY: No, I simply said that I'm not aware that there would be any change of date of the trial that would affect his plans for travel to Africa.

Q But if he were out of the country and the trial were moved up, he could not attend, by definition.

MR. MCCURRY: It would be very difficult to be in Africa and Little Rock simultaneously. That is an accurate statement.

Q So it is not his intention to attend the trial in Little Rock?

MR. MCCURRY: Well, at this point, we don't know whether the judge will act on Mr. Bennett's motion, and if so, what the schedule will be. If a schedule conflict presents itself, we'll have to look into it at that point and tell you more. But it is not impossible for the President to proceed with his constitutional work as President while the trial is underway.

Q Mike, are you expecting --

MR. MCCURRY: In fact, if I'm not mistaken, I think that was maybe foreseen in the Supreme Court's ruling on the matter.

Q Is that why the request was made to move up the trial?

MR. MCCURRY: You'd have to ask Mr. Bennett how he selected out of thin air May 23rd -- or March 23rd.

Q Mike, are there any ambassadorial nominations coming forth soon?

MR. MCCURRY: None that I have to announce now. But I think we put out some paper yesterday on one. Not the one that you're interested in. Not the Davidow nomination, which is -- I thought the other day we had already announced that, but we haven't.

Q You practically did, but not officially.

MR. MCCURRY: We practically did, but not officially. Paperwork moves slowly.

Q Mike, can you explain what happened here after you guys got word of The Wall Street Journal story yesterday? Did you folks solicit the statement from the counsel for Mr. Nelvis, or how did that come about?

MR. MCCURRY: I think Mr. Lockhart worked on that directly, so he's in a better position to tell you. But I do believe there were counsel-to-counsel discussions, appropriately, to see if there was some willingness to address what was believed to be here at the White House a false and misleading and irresponsible story.

Q But how did you know it was false and misleading?

MR. MCCURRY: I'm just not -- decline to get into that.

Q White House Counsel called Mr. Nelvis's counsel?

MR. MCCURRY: I don't want to detail the calls. I believe it's safe to say the President's legal team was in contact with Mr. Small and alerted to him properly, because the White House legal counsel has to be involved in responding on behalf of the -- or can be involved in responding on behalf of the White House to media inquiries. And we alerted Mr. Small to the inquiries that we were receiving here at the White House.

Q Mike, the speed with which reports get into general circulation, and the types of reports, the accuracy of reports that get into general circulation so quickly, does that cause the White House to rethink at all this strategy of not providing its own story, not putting its version of the facts out?

MR. MCCURRY: No, I think that's a subject matter that at journalism schools, and at journalism reviews, and among practicing journalists there ought to be further discussion.

Q Mike, about the Wall Street Journal story, did the reporters try to get a response from the White House before it went up on the Internet?

MR. MCCURRY: My understanding from Mr. Lockhart is they did not, that it was posted, and shortly after it was posted we had a call for comment -- or it was almost simultaneous. I'm not sure exactly how -- what the sequence was.

Q FBI agents served a subpoena on a West Palm Beach, Florida, station seeking videotapes of the President when he visited Greg Norman, searching for video that might indicate Monica Lewinsky was there at that time. Do you know if she was present?

MR. MCCURRY: I don't have any knowledge of that, but to my knowledge she was not present anywhere near that venue on that occasion.

Q Are you talking about venue meaning Greg Norman's house or the fundraiser?

MR. MCCURRY: Either, I believe, but I don't -- I haven't looked into it enough to give a definitive answer.

Q Why do think she wasn't there then?

MR. MCCURRY: I just don't believe she was there, but I don't -- I haven't heard of anything that would indicate that she was there. I'll check into it further, though. But I don't know anything about -- you'd have to contact them about -- I can't even verify that they've served anyone with that kind of subpoena.

Q On the Wall Street Journal story, can you say whether Counsel Ruff made the content of it known to the President? Did he seek input from the President?

MR. MCCURRY: I just decline to talk about whatever conversations the President may have with counsel on that matter.

Q Can you say if the President was made aware of it?

MR. MCCURRY: Oh, I think the President knew that the Wall Street Journal was getting ready to write an inaccurate and false story.

Q How did he know that?

MR. MCCURRY: A number of us told him.

THE PRESS: Thank you.

END 5:31 P.M. EST