THE WHITE HOUSE
Office of the Press Secretary
PRESS BRIEFING BY MIKE MCCURRY
The Briefing Room
2:12 P.M. EDT
MR. MCCURRY: A short while ago, just at 2:00 p.m., the President finished a 40-minute conversation with Russian Federation President Boris Yeltsin, an excellent conversation that reviewed the important work that the United States and the Russian Federation do together to address ethnic conflict and tension in the Balkans. Obviously, specifically they discussed Kosovo. President Yeltsin is meeting tomorrow with President Milosevic and is expected to convey the very strong sentiments of the Contact Group which met at ministerial level late last week and formulated an approach to the Belgrade authorities that both the United States and Russia believes could hold out the prospect of a diplomatic solution.
The President also took the opportunity at this call to review with President Yeltsin some of the steps the United States is taking through the International Monetary Fund and other international financial institutions to address the Russian economic situation. They had a good discussion of that issue. And beyond that, just reaffirmed the importance of both the work we do together with Russia with respect to the Balkans and the work we do together to address the needs of the global economy.
Q Did President Yeltsin raise any objections about the air exercises over the Balkans?
MR. MCCURRY: Operation Determined Falcon did not come up during the conversation.
Q What about the prospect, Mike, of Russia trying to veto any action regarding NATO and Kosovo?
MR. MCCURRY: I think, turning that around a bit, I'd say the two Presidents were in agreement that it's important to work together to find the right diplomatic approaches that can convince Milosevic and his regime to do the right thing. I think they explored in detail the prospects for getting an outcome here that would not require an "all necessary means" resolution. But I think it's very clear, and certainly the Russian government knows, that we intend to proceed with that type of resolution if necessary.
Q Are you saying in telling us that Yeltsin is expected to convey the sentiments of the Contact Group that he now agrees with those sentiments, that is, that Milosevic should call off the dogs?
MR. MCCURRY: The Russian Federation clearly believes that the actions have been beyond the pale in Kosovo and that actions by the Serb units, Serb security forces, and VJ units needs to be circumscribed. There has been an agreement on that point for some time. The issue is what happens if these diplomatic efforts are not successful, and President Yeltsin indicated he was going to do everything he could to convince Mr. Milosevic of the precariousness of Serbia's position.
Q If he fails, though, would Russia veto an "all necessary means" resolution?
MR. MCCURRY: I think we would have to see what happens if that moment comes. But I don't think we're at a point where that's the conversation that we're having.
Q So is it fair for us to characterize right now that they -- on that notion, they agree to disagree? Is that where it stands?
MR. MCCURRY: That subject specifically was not really addressed. They talked about other ways in which they could work together principally through the Contact Group to further diplomatic approaches.
P.J. has got a little fuller brief on the whole thing.
Q Both Presidents agreed on the importance of finding a political solution?
MR. MCCURRY: Both Presidents agree on the importance of finding a political solution.
Q Are you saying that Yeltsin did not express any kind of anger at the steps -- they're claiming that they weren't told about the military.
MR. MCCURRY: The President talked about why NATO was doing the kind of urgent contingency planning it's doing, but beyond that, the specific exercise today did not come up. And Secretary Cohen, as you know, has addressed that in a separate setting today, indicating that the Russian Federation was surely in a position to understand the scope and parameter of Operation Determined Falcon.
Q So the President did talk about the military intervention?
MR. MCCURRY: No, that did not come up. I'm saying Secretary Cohen in a different venue today has addressed that.
Q I'm sorry, Mike, but to be clear, a moment ago you said the President did talk about NATO contingency plans. Did I misunderstand that?
MR. MCCURRY: He talked about NATO. I said that the specific air exercise today did not come up in the call, but generally, NATO and why NATO is pursuing the kind of planning they're doing came up briefly just in broad-brush sketch.
Q And Yeltsin's response to that was what?
MR. MCCURRY: Well, he has a concern; he wants to see his -- you've heard the Russian Federation expressed that he's much more anxious to see a diplomatic solution.
Q How much influence does the President thinks Yeltsin has on Milosevic?
MR. MCCURRY: I think that our judgment is Milosevic listens very carefully to what President Yeltsin has to say; thus, the importance of the meeting tomorrow.
Q What kind of groundwork did they lay for their next summit?
MR. MCCURRY: The subject of the summit did not arise.
Q Not at all?
MR. MCCURRY: Not at all.
Q Was the call initiated by the U.S. side?
MR. MCCURRY: Both sides agreed that they would be in contact. I think the desire of the Russian Federation to have a discussion was first expressed from their side, but we wanted to discuss the financial situation in Russia and some of those issues. So the call was by mutual consent on both sides.
Q But was it meant to give them an opportunity to talk before Yeltsin meets with Milosevic tomorrow?
MR. MCCURRY: Clearly, yes.
Q Mike, Asian economic crisis is hurting a lot of businesses in the U.S. Do you think it can spread to India and Pakistan because of the sanctions, economic sanctions?
MR. MCCURRY: Well, I think the Asian financial situation could conceivably have a broad impact in the United States and throughout the industrialized nations, but it has much more to do with the overall status of the economies in the region and not specifically the sanctions policy with respect to India and Pakistan. The economic effects are much broader, more broad-based and require a more comprehensive approach such as the one the United States is pursuing the International Monetary Fund.
Q How far the U.S. is willing to go against India and Pakistan because of the nuclear test -- economic sanctions?
MR. MCCURRY: We are willing to follow the letter of U.S. law with respect to sanctions and also pursue those types of measures that we think can bring these nations into dialogue and de-escalate tensions and the conflict that exist.
Q Has the President been briefed on the Brill article and Starr's response, and does he have anything to say?
MR. MCCURRY: He is aware of it, and my understanding is that those who travel with the President got what there was to offer on that over the weekend.
Q Mike, over the weekend, Reverend Jesse Jackson called for the President's Race Advisory Board to hold some meetings in Jasper, Texas. Is the President thinking about doing that? And with the copy-cat incidents from Jasper, is he thinking about extending the race initiative -- not the thought or the theory of the initiative, the actual initiative office -- to maybe the end of year or the rest of his term, possibly?
MR. MCCURRY: The President has directly addressed the tragic death of Mr. Byrd in Jasper, as you know. The Justice Department has looked at some of the other incidents to see if there is a federal role that is suggested. And you can contact them, get anything further that they have on that.
As to the Advisory Board itself, its last official monthly advisory meeting is on Thursday, as scheduled. And then we now move into the period of the President's initiative in which we're in this sort of summing-up phase, of which I think the kind of violence in Jasper and elsewhere will surely be a part of the consideration the President brings to his final report.
Q To follow up, Mike, this is -- at the beginning of the race initiative, the question was asked, why do this, because there is no big explosive issue. Now that there is an explosive issue, he's not going to push for the initiative and the board to go down there to help defuse the problem?
MR. MCCURRY: I think that -- it's not "going down there" that would defuse the problem; it's having the kind of sober, honest, candid dialogue about this type of violence, which the President has already engendered with this initiative and which he will continue in venues like the upcoming PBS town hall meeting that will have the best prospect of addressing this violence for what it is -- an abhorrent example of the kind of violence that exists in our society that has its root in prejudice, hatred, and extremism, that has no place in civil society.
Q Mike, it was suggested over the weekend by some here at the White House that the Starr quotes as reported in the magazine represented gross prosecutorial misconduct. Does the President feel obliged to seek the removal of Judge Starr at this point? Does he think he ought to be fired?
MR. MCCURRY: I think the President concurs with those who say there are serious issues raised in that article about whether or not there have been violations of Federal Rule 6e, and they ought to be pursued independently by people who are in a position to get to the truth. There is clearly some conflict between what Mr. Starr believes is proper and legal under the law and what others and what other judicial venues have rendered as the correct interpretation of law, and that ought to be pursued independently by people who are in a position to make the correct judgment.
Q And who would that be?
MR. MCCURRY: I don't know. That should be up to the Justice Department and Mr. Starr to examine, as they have on other kinds of allegations about the OIC that have arisen.
Q Is that idea being communicated to the Justice Department. Is someone at the White House saying --
MR. MCCURRY: That's up to the Justice Department and Judge Starr. You should really ask them what kind of conversations they've had in the wake of this article.
Q Well, the White House is not contacting Justice on the subject of whether Starr should be investigated?
MR. MCCURRY: I'm not aware of any contact that the White House Legal Counsel has had with the Justice Department on the issue. Now, whether or not Mr. Kendall or those operating on behalf of the President in his private capacity raised this as they have raised it in the past, you'll have to contact them. I don't know.
Q Kendall isn't returning calls again. I wonder if you could maybe give him a little push. (Laughter.)
MR. MCCURRY: We will tell him that he has until 6:00 p.m. tonight to return phone calls. (Laughter.)
Q Mike, The New York Times reported this morning that Lani Guinier has a new book in which she charges that the President nominated her as Assistant Attorney General and then left her to "twist slowly in the wind, ordered his people to say nothing and declared he was unacquainted with some of her views, but he never told her which views he disagreed with and instead he declared, 'I love her, I think she's wonderful.'" And my question is, will the President and Mrs. Clinton -- who I understand were at Lani's wedding -- be reading her book, or not?
MR. MCCURRY: Well, I was safely at the State Department at the time when many of those events transpired, so I'm not an authoritative person. I'll see if the President has anything new to say.
Q I have one and a half follow-ups. Has the President ever said, "I love Mike McCurry, I think he's wonderful"?
MR. MCCURRY: I'm sure he has on occasion, but I'd be too modest to repeat it if he had. (Laughter.)
Q One follow-up, Mike. Does the President believe that the CNN Time Magazine story that U.S. forces used nerve gas in 1970 in Vietnam or does he believe the story is far-fetched?
MR. MCCURRY: He believes it's proper for the Pentagon as it is doing to examine carefully what factual record can be supplied. There clearly is a great deal of argument back and forth about some of the factual information in that report. And it's proper for the Pentagon to look and see what the historical record can provide by way of illumination.
Q Mike, can I get back to Scott's question for a second? Has their been discussions at the White House about firing Ken Starr?
MR. MCCURRY: I've never heard any, and I'm not aware of any.
Q President Clinton today with his economic advisors discussed Asia, and was there any plans for the President to talk directly to the Prime Minister Hashimoto in the near future to try to coordinate his actions?
MR. MCCURRY: He has been in contact with his economic advisors today, partly in preparation for the call I just told you about with President Yeltsin. Whether or not Asia came up in the condition of the Asian markets, I don't know. I know that that's been something that National Economic Advisor Gene Sperling and his staff here have been following closely, as has the Treasury Department.
Deputy Secretary Summers was here earlier today, and I can imagine, given how closely we are monitoring developments in the Asian economy, that that subject did arise in conversations with the President. I wasn't there for it. I'd have to ask them to be certain that, but given the importance we attach to that, it is entirely likely. Whether or not there are any plans for follow-up calls by the President to any of his counterparts, I can't provide any guidance at this point.
Q The Senate Majority Leader said today, I'm really worried that the President is being finessed or maneuvered by the Chinese. He's saying that the Chinese are dictating the terms of the visit, and so far it looks like the Chinese are really winning the battle on how this summit is being planned.
MR. MCCURRY: That's not accurate, and we'll be happy to brief the Majority Leader so he doesn't have to say such intemperate things.
Q On Senator Lott, Mike, he also seems to have set a deadline or a time limit on the tobacco bill of this week. One, do you think it could be completed this week?
MR. MCCURRY: I think the President's views conveyed to Majority Leader Lott through the Chief of Staff are that this bill could be completed at just about any moment. There is very strong bipartisan support for this bill. This bill hasn't gotten any worse -- in fact, some would say it's gotten better -- in the time since Senator Lott voted for it in committee, the bill, if anything, from the viewpoint one would think of Senator Lott, has improved, because it's now got some tax relief included in it.
So our view, as communicated to the Majority Leader, is get on with business and pass this bill. The American people expect this Congress to pass a historic comprehensive approach to protect the public health of kids, to protect them from tobacco addiction, and it's time for the Senate to move on with the regular order of business and get the job done.
Q If I could follow that, do you accept the deadline of a week on this bill?
MR. MCCURRY: Our view is that it could be done at virtually any moment. Senator Lott knows best the schedule in the Senate, and there's certainly no reason why they couldn't complete action within a week.
Q Did you say, though, the bill has been improved by the addition of the tax relief for married couples, in your view?
MR. MCCURRY: No, I said, if anything from Senator Lott's view, this bill has gotten better. It would be hard to argue that this bill is now a bad bill, having seen it voted overwhelmingly out of committee, including with his own vote, and seen the kind of support that it's had. He can say, well, my ideas or my opinion of the bill has changed, but he can't say that the bill itself has changed for the worse.
Q Mike, any plan for the President or NSC, anyone here to meet with some of the people involved in this Tibet rally going on?
MR. MCCURRY: I could check and see whether anyone at NSC has plans to. We have had regular contact with those who are concerned about the situation in Tibet. We very often keep updated -- or update each other on developments. At the time the Dalai Lama was here in Washington there was extensive consultation back and forth with groups. So I'll check and see whether we've had any follow-up.
Q Do you know of any meeting that was cancelled? One of the speakers on the Hill said that a planned meeting with them had been cancelled, although he didn't elaborate on it.
MR. MCCURRY: I don't know about that, but maybe P.J. can help you on that.
Q Did you say his Chief of Staff had been in contact with Lott?
MR. MCCURRY: They talked by telephone earlier today, yes.
Q And what was his -- did he get some picture of where Lott now stands?
MR. MCCURRY: Well, I think we got the picture where the Majority Leader stands over the weekend. I think it was more our view to convey that our posture was not going to change. We need this legislation. The President is going to speak to this legislation publicly in a few minutes and we're going to continue to press the case. And they should get on with business.
Q What did he say?
MR. MCCURRY: Well, he will have the right to respond as he chooses to respond.
Q Mike, when the President goes on foreign trips, he usually meets either with dissidents or with opposition figures. Will he do that when he goes to China?
MR. MCCURRY: I'm sure that, as the President does on foreign trips, he will see a cross-section of the political life of the country he's visiting. Beyond that, and who is going to be included, I don't have a specific list yet, but it will be a wide array of public and political life in China.
Q At a briefing last week, the Chinese government said that they thought it would be unhelpful to a successful summit for the President to try to meet with those kinds of figures. Would you concur in that?
MR. MCCURRY: The President, every time he goes to countries, touches base with a broad cross-section of the life of that country, and I expect him to do so when he is in China.
Q There is a report, Mike, that when Jiang Zemin came here to the United States, to the White House, that they planned to have a moderately formal occasion in a tent. Is that true? And Jiang Zemin said, no, we want a full state dinner. Is there any truth to that report?
MR. MCCURRY: He was here in October of last year and I can't remember whether we were in a tent or otherwise. Generally, to accommodate the interest and the size of the dinners, we sometimes do them outside under a tent.
Q He did what Jiang Zemin asked, right?
MR. MCCURRY: I think that we had the dinner inside, if I'm not mistaken.
COLONEL CROWLEY: The dinner was inside; I believe it was entertainment --
MR. MCCURRY: Entertainment was maybe outside and dinner inside.
Q Mike, there is legislation on the Hill that would begin to attenuate the sanctions on Pakistan by allowing government credits for wheat sales to Pakistan. Does the President have a view of that?
MR. MCCURRY: I know that the administration is supportive of those efforts. Our view is that it's not our goal to use food exports as a tool in our sanctions policy. On the contrary; one of our goals in implementing these sanctions is to minimize the humanitarian impact on the people of India and Pakistan.
Obviously, we share the concern that a cut-off of export credits could adversely affect U.S. farmers. But this is an example of what happens sometimes when the inflexibility of sanctions as an instrument applies -- there needs to be a way to go back because the Justice Department determined that there was no flexibility under the Glenn Amendment; they need to go back and make this modification. We suspect there will be strong support for doing so.
Q Just to follow up -- what about -- since it appears that the United States is going to be acting unilaterally, basically, with regards to these sanctions, would the President support efforts in Congress to begin to lift the sanctions? Does he want to see that happen?
MR. MCCURRY: Well, there are other countries that have found ways of bringing economic leverage to bear on both India and Pakistan. But our law is our law, and it functions as it does. And we look for ways, if we need to find ways, to ameliorate some aspect of sanctions -- particularly in this case with respect to wheat sales, we can attempt to do that. But the broader issue maybe is what is the utilitarian effect of sanctions imposed unilaterally, and I think there's a good healthy debate that needs to be had on that point.
Q Speaking of that debate, what's the timing of the President's veto of the Iran sanctions?
MR. MCCURRY: We have until June 23rd; we'll let you know when it happens.
Q I want to follow up on that. I mean, if the vote holds, this will be the second veto override.
MR. MCCURRY: Let's see what happens.
Q Mike, with the First Family was so closed-mouth and guarded about Chelsea, why is the President so easy going on McCain about the joke that some are calling ignorant and ugly?
MR. MCCURRY: They dealt with that over the weekend. I don't have anything new to add to that.
Q Any reaction to Butler's comments today on easing sanctions on Iraq?
MR. MCCURRY: Well, we would like to see nothing more than progress that would allow the United Nations to declare full compliance with a host of U.N. Security Council resolutions with respect to Iraq. Obviously, we have strong interest and strong concern about weapons of mass destruction. We appreciate Chairman Butler's report. We think it will be important between now and the next review of Iraqi sanctions in October to determine whether the obligations that have been undertaken by the Iraqi government are fulfilled, and whether there is a continued pattern of full compliance, of full candor and openness and transparency when it comes to the supervision of these programs.
Q But, Mike, does the White House agree or disagree that Iraq is very close?
MR. MCCURRY: Well, it doesn't matter whether they're very close, it matters when and if they comply. And that's what we'll be waiting to see.
Q Anything you can tell us about the President's meeting tomorrow with Coretta Scott King?
MR. MCCURRY: The President clearly, following up on a phone call he had with the family earlier this year in which he then asked the Attorney General to pursue some of the concerns of the family, as a matter of courtesy and out of respect for the legacy of Dr. King and for the enormous accomplishments of his family, thinks it's important to take the opportunity to meet with Mrs. King and other family members.
Q Does he have any opinion on whether that case should be reopened?
MR. MCCURRY: I think that will continue to be within the province of the Justice Department to examine. And as you know from the Attorney General's report after her meeting with Mrs. King, they are looking into the matter.
Q Do we have a timetable for that?
MR. MCCURRY: I have not heard one, but you might want to inquire at Justice.
Q You said there needs to be debate about the sanctions. Does the President have a view about how long Congress should wait to ask to lift the sanctions, or whether or not in principle he'd like that to happen this year?
MR. MCCURRY: Look, we are just in the position of understanding better what the requirements of these sanctions are. The Glenn Amendment, after all, has never been invoked before. So we are still working through all the issues that arise, these sanctions having been imposed for the first time in history. I think we're a long ways away from considering when they ought to be lifted. We would certainly love to see developments on the Indian subcontinent that would suggest that these governments have a new disposition and the case could be made to our Congress to lift sanctions. But we certainly don't see that at this moment.
Q Are you saying, Mike, that the sanctions in that case should be lifted equally?
MR. MCCURRY: I just said that we're talking less about lifting sanctions than about how best to impose sanctions that have never been imposed before.
Q The point of my question, though, is that the sanctions fall much more heavily on Pakistan as a percentage of their GDP, than India. Is the United States trying to give Pakistan somewhat of a break over India with regard to the sanctions?
MR. MCCURRY: I think we are following the law as the law is written and understanding better how the law applies to two countries that are differently situated because of their economic condition, first and foremost.
Q Mike, has the White House filed the appeal on behalf of Bruce Lindsey, the lawyer-client privilege, yet?
MR. MCCURRY: I do not know. You'd have to ask Mr. Kendall.
Q Just a question at this event. Do you know how these students were chosen?
MR. MCCURRY: Presidential scholars -- I don't know --
Q Does the White House choose them?
MR. MCCURRY: I don't think so. We'll find out more about that.
Q The reason I'm asking is because the three D.C. students are from NCS, Sidwell Friends, and St. Alban's, and it seems like it's a real resounding vote of no confidence for the public school system.
MR. MCCURRY: Well, we'll find out more about how they're chosen, but I don't know --
Q Mike, when the President goes to China will he be trying to make a deal that no longer targets nuclear missiles at each other's country?
MR. MCCURRY: We have said that we have an interest in reaching that type of understanding with the People's Republic as we have with the Russian Federation in the past, but that will be subject -- that and other questions related to proliferation and to regional security issues will be part of the dialogue we will report to you as the meetings occur.
Q Back on the Tibet answer, are you saying there were no plans for the President to meet with Dave Matthews and Michael Stipe?
MR. MCCURRY: I'm saying it's the first I've heard of it and I directed you to ask the NSC further about it.
Q Mr. McCurry, a question about Australia, if I could. There was an election in Australia over the weekend, in the state of Queensland. About a quarter of the vote went to a new party they call One Nation Party. It's led by a woman and she's accused of being -- having a racial bias. She's anti-Asian immigration and speaking against land rights for Aborigines in Australia. This is front-page news in Asia and it seemed to have a --
MR. MCCURRY: I saw the reports about that local election earlier and I'm aware of that. Whether or not there has been follow-up work by our embassy or whether we've done anything further about that I'd have to take as a question. And perhaps the NSC can help you on that.
Q Will you do a readout on the visit --
MR. MCCURRY: The event has begun, by the way.
Q Will you do a readout on the visit with King Hussein?
MR. MCCURRY: The President will see King Hussein at 4:00 p.m. I expect them, as I indicated earlier, to exchange views on the status of the Middle East peace process. Beyond that, I don't expect much of an elaborate readout.
Q Does today's school shooting in Richmond add any new urgency to what the President has asked Riley and Reno to come up with?
MR. MCCURRY: I think it is again a reminder of the difficulty of dealing with these situations. It raises issues with respect to the question I had earlier about the copy-cat nature of some this violence. It calls for further exploration of what we know and what can we understand about the motivations of young people who do this.
We're still developing what the circumstances are in the incident in Richmond, so I think it's a little too early to judge whether this fits any kind of pattern, but certainly helping schools through the kinds of guidelines that the Department of Education will develop, to alert administrators and parents and teachers and kids themselves on what they can do to intervene earlier rather than later when tragedy occurs is a very wise thing to do.
I know that everyone will -- we already had ample reason enough to work quickly; I'm sure we'll want to do more.
You need to get out there if you want to watch the event. Otherwise we're going to lock you out.
THE PRESS: Thank you.
END 2:40 P.M. EDT