THE WHITE HOUSE
Office of the Press Secretary
PRESS BRIEFING BY MIKE MCCURRY
The Briefing Room
1:12 P.M. EST
MR. MCCURRY: Hello, hello, hello, ladies and gentlemen. I'm going to add one thing to the press schedule for tomorrow. At 1:30 p.m. in the Roosevelt Room the President will host a food safety event -- food safety will be the subject of the presidential event; 1:30 p.m. tomorrow in the Roosevelt Room.
Q You mean like sections of meat and other things?
MR. MCCURRY: Safety of fruits and vegetables coming from overseas, Sam.
Q Fruits and vegetables.
MR. MCCURRY: There will be a lot of interest in that I know. Didn't we announce that in October? (Laughter.) We have a further update on our efforts to protect the American consuming public when it comes to food safety. We said some things last October on the subject and we're going to add to the story and move the story forward tomorrow. In a major new development, the White House today --
MR. TOIV: Legislation is being introduced in response to the President's --
MR. MCCURRY: Let's try to make this news tomorrow because it's clearly not going to work today. (Laughter.)
MR. TOIV: It's not going to work tomorrow either. (Laughter.)
MR. MCCURRY: There's no harm in trying.
Q One of the reasons it's not going to work today is because Mr. Jordan, we are told, is coming back tomorrow to the grand jury. What is the President's reaction?
MR. MCCURRY: We haven't been told that so we don't know.
Q Well, what is your reaction to the fact that Vernon Jordan is before the grand jury today -- the President's?
MR. MCCURRY: You know, he's before the grand jury.
Q What would his reaction be if he learned that he's coming back tomorrow?
MR. MCCURRY: He'll be there -- I think his lawyer indicated he'll be there a long time.
Q Well, we asked you this morning if you thought he would tell the truth, Mr. Jordan, and you said yes.
MR. MCCURRY: Do you want that sound bite I gave you this morning, is that what you're asking?
Q No, no. But you said you were certain he was. Have the President and Mr. Jordan discussed Mr. Jordan's testimony, or have lawyers for the two discussed what he will say?
MR. MCCURRY: I'm not aware of any such discussions and I think they're both lawyers and would be properly circumspect about their conversations.
Q But their lawyers could talk to each other.
MR. MCCURRY: They could and they may have, but I don't have any knowledge that they did.
Q But it's this lawyers' agreement we've been told about, sort of a common defense discussion -- it's legal and it's ethical.
MR. MCCURRY: But I believe his attorneys indicated he is not a part of any agreement like that, if I'm not mistaken. Hasn't Mr. Huntley said that? You should ask Mr. Huntley the question in any event.
Q You said they had talked about other matters.
Q Will Huntley return your phone calls?
MR. MCCURRY: The President and Vernon? Yes, I mean, the normal socializing that they do from time to time.
Q Do you know how many conversations they may have had --
MR. MCCURRY: I believe the most recent one was just when they were at the ball game together the other night.
Q Mike, can you describe the influence he has on the President in terms of policy and personnel decisions, how often do they talk -- before this happened, I understand --
MR. MCCURRY: I can't. He's not an official member of the President's staff or the Cabinet, but there is such a thing as the "kitchen cabinet," dating back to the days of Andrew Jackson. And if there is such a thing, Vernon is in it.
Q Jordan's in the kitchen?
MR. MCCURRY: The kitchen cabinet, dating back to the great presidency of Andrew Jackson. In fact, I think the Blair House was named for Montgomery Blair, one of the very first kitchen cabineteers.
Q Let me renew a question asked several times in the past. If the President is called on by the independent counsel to testify, will he voluntarily, as he has in the past, honor that request?
MR. MCCURRY: That is a question that would be properly posed when it is something other than a moot point, because it hasn't been --
Q Don't you expect he will be called at some point?
MR. MCCURRY: I have no idea what to expect or not to expect.
Q Do you have any kind of read out on the Middle East meeting this morning?
MR. MCCURRY: The President had a very good session with his advisors on the Middle East peace process. They spent a lot of time talking about how we can breathe some life into a process that has not gone anywhere fast in recent months. Since the President's conversations with Chairman Arafat and Prime Minister Netanyahu the parties have been in dialogue. Secretary Albright and Ambassador Ross have been in contact with the parties from time to time. But not enough has happened, and I think the President is very anxious to see if he can't get these parties to concentrate on the very difficult decisions they're going to have to make if the peace process is going to move forward. And the President and his advisors explored ideas on how they might do so.
Q I was going to say, can you tell us what new ideas they might have?
MR. MCCURRY: I think it would be -- you can well understand, advisable for whatever our thinking is as it develops into a course of action to share that with the parties before we share it publicly.
Q What would you expect the next move to be in this process?
MR. MCCURRY: There are any number of possibilities.
Q Was there discussion also of the U.N. resolution on Iraq at this meeting this morning?
MR. MCCURRY: Only briefly and only to reaffirm what I expect the President to say shortly, that it's a very good resolution and reaffirms the united view of the Security Council that there needs to be a full compliance by the government of Iraq with the agreement that Iraq has made with the Secretary General, and that very clearly, severe consequences -- the severest consequences will apply to any abrogation of that arrangement by the government of Iraq.
Q Mike, can you say how that's a different situation than we had before the resolution with three of five members of the Security Council opposed to the use of force?
MR. MCCURRY: In terms of authority, legal authority for the United States to act if necessary in a military fashion, no change, but in terms of an explicit warning to Iraq that the united view of the Security Council at this point is that severest consequences would result of any failure to implement this agreement. I think it has a significant weight.
Q But, Mike, the U.S. always supported China from left and right and everywhere. Now China is not going along with the U.N. Security Council on that.
MR. MCCURRY: The vote was 15-0, so that's factually inaccurate.
Q So, Mike, you're saying that puts us in a different place than before the resolution?
MR. MCCURRY: It's a strong resolution that conveys the thinking of the Security Council and most welcome.
Q To follow up, Pentagon officials say that Bahrain has told the U.S. that the Air Force bomber group has to be out of Bahrain by March 15th.
MR. MCCURRY: I'm not aware of that. I'll rely on whatever the Pentagon is saying about that.
Q Is there any reaction in terms of whether or not that weakens the U.S. position to enforce --
MR. MCCURRY: We have a significant force deployed in that region that can do any number of things, including successfully carrying out any mission the Commander-in-Chief prescribes. But I'll leave it to the Pentagon to talk about any military-to-military contact they've had with the government of Bahrain.
Q A follow-up -- well, the same subject. They've accelerated anthrax vaccinations for the troops. What message does that convey?
MR. MCCURRY: That's a prudent step that General Zinni recommended to General Shelton and to Secretary Cohen, and they are implementing it in a prudent, precautionary way.
Q And any plans to give vaccinations, make vaccinations available to civilian populations?
MR. MCCURRY: The State Department was addressing that question today. They've been studying that issue. I expect they're saying more about that at their briefing today.
Q Mike, does the U.S. rely on the judgment of Richard Butler to determine whether or not Iraq is in compliance with the agreement?
MR. MCCURRY: He will be the one on the ground with his teams who will be in the best position to judge the performance of the Iraqi government as they carry out the inspections that they need to carry out in order to do their work. So as we always have, we will take very seriously his reports to the Secretary General and to the Secretary Council.
Q Mike, what effect has this latest crisis with Iraq had and the diplomacy surrounding it on the Middle East peace atmosphere?
MR. MCCURRY: Well, it's hard to calculate. There are a number of governments that have answered that questions directly in their own view, but we have remained, nonetheless, interested in working to move the parties forward. It becomes difficult in a climate when there's uncertainty in the region because of the prospect of military action. But our view has always been that the search for peace is going to be a permanent effort of the United States and we'll need to continue, and as peace agreements are reached that that needs to be deepened, nurtured.
So our efforts continue irrespective of what we're doing with any other force in the region. But, of necessity, I think many governments were waiting to see what the outcome of the standoff with Iraq was as they made judgments related to the peace process. Now, if that's true, an effort at this point to find ways of bringing new thinking to bear on the parties and how they might move forward would obviously be a common-sense step.
Q Mike, going back to the question about Chairman Butler, are you saying that in essence he would be arbiter of compliance or that there would be a Security Council resolution required to show that Iraq is in breach of compliance?
MR. MCCURRY: No, we -- two different questions there. First, the agreement reached was between the government of Iraq and the United Nations in the name of the Secretary General, so the United Nations itself is the arbiter of agreement. But that's no different than the work the Special Commission has done in Iraq pursuant to U.N. Security Council resolutions.
The judgments we have made about the performance of the government of Iraq when it comes to the mandates to the United Nations is based on the reports we get from the professional scientific experts led by Chairman Butler who have been in the country doing the work. They report to the Secretary General and the Security Council receives their reports. That is no doubt the same process that will occur because Chairman Butler has indicated he will report to the Security Council through the Secretary General as has been past practice.
We make our own judgments as a sovereign member state of the United Nations as to world events or the understandings we have with respect to compliance with Security Council resolutions and we believe it is manifestly clear already in Security Council resolutions that there's sufficient authority to take further steps. We concur in the views expressed by the Secretary General last night that there's not likely going to be a second round of diplomacy at this point because we've had enough of that if there's failure to comply with the agreements reached by the commendable efforts of the Secretary General.
Q Mike, -- failure to comply, what about the Chinese warning to the U.N. not to use force automatically, even if Iraq failed to comply with the U.N. resolutions?
MR. MCCURRY: There are many governments that believe there is nothing in the resolution that has been agreed to by the Security Council that suggests automatic use of force. I believe I would only rely on the statement the President has made that if there's failure to comply with this latest agreement reached, how and when force might be used will be a matter of the United States choosing, and we hope choosing to operate in harmony with other members of the Security Council, other members of the world community if needed.
Q What's your assessment of why Hussein went along with this deal with the U.N.? Did it really offer something different that he needed, felt he needed, or do you think it was just a face-saving thing on his part and the threat of military action?
MR. MCCURRY: I think the best explanation is given by the Secretary General, who met him face to face and remarked on the utility of diplomacy matched with force. Saddam Hussein no doubt was well aware of the considerable arsenal he faced in the region.
Q Does the President trust Saddam Hussein as the Secretary General appears to?
MR. MCCURRY: The President made it clear it's not a question of trust.
Q What does he make of the Secretary General saying he can do business with Saddam?
MR. MCCURRY: Well, he did, and we'll see whether it was effective business.
Q But he said he could trust him.
MR. MCCURRY: You heard the President on that question.
Q Oh, I thought you'd answered mine. When do you expect the inspections to resume?
MR. MCCURRY: Chairman Butler has indicated that that will be soon, but he, naturally, wants to organize his team sufficiently and his public statements are reliable.
Q Is there a time limit --
MR. MCCURRY: He's addressed that. I don't have a different view.
Q Mike, on another topic briefly, Fred Feinstein, I understand is going to be given an acting appointment as the National Labor Relations Board.
MR. MCCURRY: Stump the Press Secretary. Do you know anything about that?
MR. TOIV: Yes, that could happen very shortly.
MR. MCCURRY: Could happen very shortly, Barry says. On behalf of the Deputy Press Secretary, let me indicate that. (Laughter.)
Q How long --
MR. MCCURRY: The question is posed to you, Deputy -- (laughter.) Come on up here.
MR. TOIV: If that were to happen, it would last for 40 days, during which time the President could nominate him or someone else. And he could then serve -- assuming no action in the Senate, he could then serve until the end of this year.
Q What's the point of doing -- is the President thinking of someone else, or does he want to reappoint?
MR. TOIV: I think I'll leave that for the President to announce when he does it.
MR. MCCURRY: Forty days and 40 nights; deluge to follow. (Laughter.)
Q Did you get any readout on Vice President Mondale's meeting, and did he get any intimation from the Indonesians that they will stick with the IMF reforms?
MR. MCCURRY: Former Vice President Mondale met with President Soeharto. He underscored our strong -- underscored that our own view is that a very demonstrable commitment to full and sustained implementation of the economic reforms agreed to with the IMF offers the best prospects for restoring financial stability and economic growth in Indonesia. I think we made it clear -- he made it clear to President Soeharto that judgments in the world community about the progress that the Indonesian economy can make will be awaiting the decisions that President Soeharto made. We hope that President Soeharto heard that message and we hope that he proceeds accordingly to fully implement the economic reforms. It will now be up to President Soeharto.
Q Was there any coordination between anyone at the White House and Bob Weiner and the letter that he has written Kenneth Starr today?
MR. MCCURRY: Not that I know of. Did you see -- we were speaking how impressed we were that that was embargoed, his letter was embargoed. You may have noticed.
Q I didn't notice. He faxed it all around.
MR. MCCURRY: Yes, I'm sure he did. No, the first we saw of it was when we saw it on the wire.
Q Well, do you concur with his sentiments?
MR. MCCURRY: Do I believe that he feels that he is owed an apology by --
Q I know how he feels. Do you think he is owed an apology?
MR. MCCURRY: I think he made a very good case, very strong case.
Q Is the answer yes?
MR. MCCURRY: I think I answered that.
Q No, you didn't. That's the point.
Q -- Louis Farrakhan is back in America after touring some Arab and African nations, especially some nations that are not allies with America and with the Clinton administration. Is this trip, or some of these trips that Farrakhan normally takes hindrances to the administration?
MR. MCCURRY: They are not of such consequence as to be hindrances. They have never been very helpful to those who search for the kind of human rights and respect for individual freedom that the United States government seeks throughout the world. If there are any other legal issues arising from his travels, I'd refer you to the State Department and the Justice Department.
Q Mike, what's the status of naming an ambassador to Mexico? Is there any concern that the nomination might won't comply with the Congress' concern over certification --
MR. MCCURRY: Proceeding at this point rather swiftly. And, no, no concern that that would be affected by the certification issue. There's a widely rumored candidate who is very highly regarded in Mexico City and someone we think would very ably service us.
Q The rumor has not reached me. Who is that?
Q The only person in the room who doesn't know.
Q Who is it then? Clue me in.
MR. MCCURRY: Well, if I say here then I'm announcing an ambassadorial appointment.
Q I asked what the rumor was.
MR. MCCURRY: Oh, the rumor. You just want me to tell you what the rumors are. Well, the rumor is that the very able Assistant Secretary of State over at the State Department for Inter-American Affairs has been suggested as a candidate. And I suggested that he is certainly someone that the President holds in very high regard. Of course, I made no announcement.
Q Is there any truth to the rumor? (Laughter.)
MR. MCCURRY: You may have gathered. When are we going to announce that?
COLONEL CROWLEY: I think they're waiting for a certain event in April to transpire first.
Q Not Cinco de Mayo. (Laughter.)
MR. MCCURRY: You can well imagine that the very highly regarded Assistant Secretary of State for Inter-American Affairs is very naturally highly involved with the upcoming Summit of the Americas at this point.
Q The President is going there, isn't he?
MR. MCCURRY: To Chile -- in April. Did we announce that yet? Preemptory announcements.
Q Has the President received or have any of his lawyers received any kind of a communication in recent days from the OIC, either telling him what his status his or request an interview of some sort?
MR. MCCURRY: Not that I am aware of. I know that there have been conversations between the legal counsel's office and the OIC, but I think there are with respect to privilege. You should check with Jim Kennedy further on that, though.
Q How do you explain that everybody reached the resolutions in different ways -- the U.N. resolution? You read it as you can attack unilaterally; other countries say you have to go to the Security Council.
MR. MCCURRY: Different governments on the Security Council take different views about the automaticity that would trigger military action. That's what the debate in the Security Council has been, to what degree would any military action as a result of a failure to comply with the agreement lead to automatic military action. We have a view on that matter and other governments have different views. But I can safely report that every other government among the permanent members of the Security Council knows how seriously the world community would take any failure to implement this agreement by Iraq. And even some of those who are skeptical of use of force and against any concept of automaticity, certainly those governments have assured the United States at very high and highest levels that they understand that a resort to force would be most likely if the government of Iraq continued to delay meetings its obligations under U.N. mandates.
Q What's the word -- automaticity?
Q May I have a follow up? On the other hand, Iraq reached the accord with Kofi Annan as to the inspectors and the diplomats. How do the other members read it?
MR. MCCURRY: They most likely don't. They may have tried to convince you that they do, but I think they have no illusions about what is required of them as a result of that agreement. The question is, are they going to try -- are they going to implement the agreement or are they going to continue to try to obfuscate and delay as they have in the past. And I think what the Security Council has made abundantly clear now is that severest consequences means exactly that. I don't think there's any ambiguity in that phrase.
Q Mike, is there a date for the President and Kofi Annan to meet here at the White House?
MR. MCCURRY: They have not been able to schedule that yet but now that the resolution is complete, I imagine they'll look for an available time. Now, the Secretary General does have an interest in speaking with members of Congress on the arrears issue, and I imagine they'll try to coordinate that scheduling.
Q Mike, without using the words, you've described basically an automatic trigger. Are we wrong to conclude that?
MR. MCCURRY: The President has made it quite clear that we would take as a very grave matter a failure by the government of Iraq to implement its obligations under that memorandum of understanding. And the Security Council now has echoed that concern by saying severest consequences would apply. How and when those consequences might be applied may be, as the President suggested, a matter of timing and choosing that the United State makes. If necessary, we would act unilaterally, but the preference, as always, would be locked in concert with other, including members of the Security Council who have now made this very important statement acknowledging that severest consequences could arise.
Q Mike, has the U.S. government said if it would abide by any ruling of the International Court of Justice on where the accuses Libyans would stand trial in the Pan Am 103 bombing?
MR. MCCURRY: We have always taken the view that the two accused suspects should be tried for justice in either the United States or in the United Kingdom, and I'm not aware there's any change in our views. We've acknowledged the that International Court of Justice has got a role to play in the procedural deliberations around some of these issues. There a procedural issue that was considered by the court recently, but U.N. Security Council resolutions make quite clear that the two suspects should be delivered for justice to the countries that represent the host countries for the predominant number of victims -- the United States and the United Kingdom.
Q And in the U.S. view those resolutions take precedence over any ruling of the court?
MR. MCCURRY: I'm not aware that the court has indicated any willingness to take that question on. It was a technical matter -- we saw that as a technical action by the court and not one that was dispositive of the issue.
Q I understand that, but if the issue goes forward in the court and if the court were to rule other than what the resolutions say, would the U.S. abide by it?
MR. MCCURRY: Well, that would be something that we would no doubt have views on that we would want to litigate in front of the court.
Q Going back to President Soeharto. Did President Soeharto give you any indication of how he'd reacted to the message from Vice President Mondale?
MR. MCCURRY: I very carefully did not characterize his reaction. I think it would only be proper for him or for the government of Indonesia to do so.
Q And just to follow up, that includes his idea of a currency board?
MR. MCCURRY: You already know our views on that. And whether or not their views have changed would be up for their government to say.
Q If the CBO comes out later today with a substantially higher estimate of the budget surplus over the next 10 years --
MR. MCCURRY: We'll all let out a great cheer. That would be wonderful news.
Q Does that in any way change the administration's policy on tax cuts?
MR. MCCURRY: No. Our policy is that that would be a surplus that then is first to be devoted to Social Security, as we consider ways in which we can protect that program for the future. And it might be incentive for Congress to consider the very carefully reasoned arguments for targeted tax relief that the President has put forward and another reason why they should move forward promptly with the kind of tax relief the President has proposed.
Q Mike, Republicans have agreed on about $208 billion over six years for spending on ISTEA, but they haven't identified any offsets. What's the White House view of that?
MR. MCCURRY: Naughty, naughty. (Laughter.) They need to -- we have proposed federal transportation spending in excess of some agreements in the Balanced Budget Act. Now, my understanding was that they were coming together on some agreements on spending levels and the pay-fors need to be agreed to. We had a significant objection to -- was this in the House or the Senate? Our significant objection was the fact that they were taking the money and devoting it totally to highway transportation funding and not setting any aside for mass transit. But we again would point people back to the President's own FY'99 budget proposal for surface transportation, which we think lays out a very good path which calls for increased spending over average spending in past years, but not -- obviously not as much as the governors want, but we think it's a sufficient amount to take care of the most urgent and priority highway needs.
MR. TOIV: And have offsets that don't disturb the President's priorities.
MR. MCCURRY: Right. The offsets that are contained in our funding proposals don't jeopardize any of the President's high priorities.
Do you want to add anything to that?
MR. TOIV: You weren't suggesting that the surpluses be used to pay for our tax cut.
MR. MCCURRY: No, no, no, because that's included in our budget. I said it provides additional rationale why you can move ahead with the kind of targeted tax relief that we want. It's not necessary because it's paid for within our balanced budget plan.
Q Does he have anything else? (Laughter.)
MR. MCCURRY: Barry? Barry, anything -- Terry doesn't want to call it quits unless you want to --
Q I just want to know if he has anything else.
MR. TOIV: No, I just wanted to make sure that got on the record.
MR. MCCURRY: We got it on the record.
All right. Thanks, everybody.
END 1:42 P.M. EST