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Office of the Press Secretary

For Immediate Release February 11, 1999
                            PRESS BRIEFING BY 
                              JOE LOCKHART 
                            The Briefing Room   

1:07 P.M. EST

MR. LOCKHART: Questions.

Q Yes. I want to address the business we were talking about this morning, and that is stories that say that there is going to be revenge visited upon Republicans and other people who have been the President's critics in this whole business.

MR. LOCKHART: Well, first off, the only person who is quoted in that story by name is Mr. Sosnik, and I think his quote made a lot of sense. There have been a series of stories over the last couple of weeks which very loosely talk about White House advisors, and as I told you this morning, I don't know where -- who these guys are, where they live, or who they work for. I'll just leave it there.

Q Would you address t subject?

MR. LOCKHART: Sure, absolutely. The President --

Q Is revenge one of the things the President is interested in?

MR. LOCKHART: The President is very committed to working hard over the next year and a half to help Democrats retake the House and the Senate. The House in particular is very close. It's a very small margin and we think, with the President helping to raise resources and articulating a very positive and forward-looking message, that we can retake the House.

I have to tell you there are people in the Democratic Party, people who work here at the White House who I think are pretty good at developing a political strategy and I can't think of a worse, more dumb, strategy than going after people based on whether they were a House manager or not. You look at the House managers and the vast majority are in safe seats or unopposed seats. We're going to go out, do the best we can at articulating a message, and do it based on where we think we can win seats, in cooperation with the Democrats on the Hill.

Q The answer is no?

MR. LOCKHART: The answer is, I think we're a little bit smarter than that.

Q Joe, are there any decisions on whether or how the President would address the nation after a vote?

MR. LOCKHART: No. I expect from what I hear from the Hill that we're looking at tomorrow. And I have no insight yet into how or when that will happen.

Q Do you, by any chance, regret this gloat-free zone issue, especially since the Senate Chaplain took that issue in his prayer today, praying that the President would not gloat over victories?

MR. LOCKHART: I actually am very pleased that I said it because it has cut down on the number of times you all have asked me that question, so I believe it's served its purpose. And I always appreciate prayers. They're very helpful particularly in the case of me.

Q Joe, is there a difference between a gloat-free zone and criticizing what the House did and the House procedure and the fact that you believe that the President should have never been impeached in the first place?

MR. LOCKHART: Sure. But I think we've been pretty clear on what we think about the House. And our efforts are to move this debate into the areas that the American people care about, Social Security, education, health care. So I don't see any reason to come back to the discussions we were having in November and December.

Q So you're saying the White House does not intend after this vote to try to tar it as having been nothing more than a partisan venture?

MR. LOCKHART: I think we've made our point. I think the American public in large degree agrees with that point, and I don't see any -- it's not my intention to revisit past history ad nauseam.

Q What is the President planning on doing, Joe, to reconcile these parties after the vote to bring the Congress back together in a way that he can work with?

MR. LOCKHART: Well, I think if you look at the State of the Union address, you see a road map for doing that. He laid out a very positive agenda on issues from Social Security, education, health care. But he also -- and I think it's important to look at the first thing he did, which was to turn around and reach out his hand to the new Speaker of the House. That is the spirit by which we will go forward, and it's the spirit in which we think we can get things done this year.

I think, if you look back over the administration, we have, in times -- in the most political times -- 1996, when the President was running for reelection, we actually got a lot of things done on a bipartisan basis very late in the session -- whether it was welfare reform; minimum wage; the Kassebaum-Kennedy health care legislation. So we think we can do what's best for the American public, move things through Congress, and also delineate where the parties are different and give the voters a choice for when they go to the polls, which is the end of next year.

Q Do you look forward to cooperation?

MR. LOCKHART: Absolutely.

Q Joe, if what the House did was partisan and unfair, would senators who vote to convict also be acting in a partisan and unfair manner?

MR. LOCKHART: Well, I think the process in the Senate has been quite different than the process in the House. If you look at what the House did, it was very much passing on and providing some validation to the referral they got. The Senate had a process -- the trial -- where both sides were given an opportunity to make their case. And I think senators are making up their mind based on that case.

Q So you're saying now that the Senate proceeding has been fair?

MR. LOCKHART: I'm saying -- as I think I said yesterday -- that both sides were able to make their case. I think there have been days in this process where we've had some grievance with a turn in events one way or the other. But I think, to differentiate what happened in the Senate to the House, we were able to make our case. There was no limiting us to a day or limiting us to, after weeks of hearings, saying you can come in and present your case, and then in the middle of that presentation releasing the articles or the actual charges. So I think there has been a vast difference.

Q So you think it has been fair? Generally it has been fair?

MR. LOCKHART: Ask me again tomorrow. (Laughter.)

Q By extension, Joe, would you say that a vote in favor of the articles by an individual senator is a matter of conscious and a vote worthy of credit?

MR. LOCKHART: We would certainly hope that the senators would vote based on the case that was presented to them by both sides and vote on the conscience that -- and vote in a way that's devoid or separates whatever political considerations may exist.

Q How would it change the dynamic of this story and the public viewing of it if, in fact, there is no censure, no formal proclamation by the Senate? The President has said repeatedly that he is open to consideration of that. Even at one time he suggested that he thought he might deserve something like that.

MR. LOCKHART: It's impossible for me to predict how it will change this. It is a decision for the Senate to make and for the Senate to articulate why they've made whatever decision it is they end up making.

Q Does it really help the President in dealing with Congress if some people say, well, he got off scott free -- is that a good thing?

MR. LOCKHART: I think the American people have a somewhat deeper understanding of these issues than whatever slogan is coming out of one side or the other on any given day. So I'm not sure what the -- if there is any profound meaning for them. But I think it's for the Senate to decide what they want to do, and we'll leave it to them.

Q Joe, if the Senate, as it now seems likely, the Senate fails to muster a majority on either or even both of the impeachment articles, can the President take at least some comfort from that?

MR. LOCKHART: I think that he believes strongly in what Mr. Ruff presented, which is the House managers have not made their case and that he's not guilty on the charges they've brought forward. And that's -- I think that's pretty straightforward.

Q So he would feel some comfort from that level of support?

MR. LOCKHART: I think the Senate agreeing with the case the defense has made is a positive.

Q Joe, the reason -- a lot of these questions try to get at this same basic notion, which is, does the White House regard what has happened to the President in this whole inquiry as nothing more than a political vendetta, or rather a legitimate search for the truth about what the President did and whether or not it was illegal?

MR. LOCKHART: Again, I think we have been very clear over the last year, particularly as we talked about the House proceedings, the President accepts responsibility for what he did. But we have serious concerns about how the House proceeded to do their business. It seemed at times more based on a partisan agenda than a search for what happened here and a search for the truth. But we are well passed that, and if that's what the issue de jour is I'll stand here and continue to repeat what we've said over and over again. But as far as the President is concerned, he's looking forward to the future and that's what he is concentrating on.

Q But isn't the President ultimately responsible for his own impeachment?

MR. LOCKHART: The President is responsible for his actions. Others will have to decide whether the House in how they approached this process acted in a way that demonstrated their search for the truth or in a way that demonstrated their need to gain partisan advantage. Our views are I think pretty well known.

Q Getting back to the congressional campaign of 2000, if, as you say, the President is not going to pursue revenge or a vendetta against the House managers, does he take the notion of taking back the House personally? Is that important to him as far as his redemption and his legacy is concerned?

MR. LOCKHART: I think he's got a more practical view of that, which is that we believe that -- for instance, if we had managed to win a few more seats this time, pushing forward the agenda of saving Social Security, investing in people, investing in education, health care, would be easier. It would be easier. You'll remember a theme of the last campaign was putting progress ahead of partisanship. We think that it will be demonstrably easier to promote the agenda of the President, and the Democrat who will succeed the President in 2001, with a Democratic Congress.

Q Are you concerned about the impact that advisors would have on the Senate vote, of coming out and saying the President is taking this personally and does want --

MR. LOCKHART: You know, I think senators have spent the last five weeks very involved in this -- on the evidence, on the case that has been made before them -- or not made, as the case may be. I doubt that there are people sitting, making up their mind based on what an unnamed person who says they advise the President says.

I think they have their own people. Maybe they live out at the swamp in the Capitol; ours live in Lafayette Park, I don't know. But they have their own unnamed advisors they've got to deal with. I'm sure they've got a vast reservoir of information to base their decision on, and they're all doing that.

Q Joe, you say the President now makes an aggressive effort to help the Democrats win back the House. Will he or will he not brand the Republican Party as the party of impeachment?

MR. LOCKHART: No, I think again -- I don't know how the year 2000 campaign will play out, but I think the President, as he goes out and talks to Democrats around the country and, in a more overtly political way as we do at fundraisers and at political events, he'll talk about the idea that you've heard before, which is putting progress over partisanship. That it's the people's business that people here in Washington need to focus on, and that's Social Security, health care, education those issues that the President has stayed focused on. And we need to continue to try to make progress and we can do that in a bipartisan way. We can do that with Republicans as we move forward.

Q As a tactical matters, since House managers and senators alike are reacting to a strategy that you've already denounced as dumb are you going to make an explicit effort to reach out to these House members and senators and say, no, no, this is not what we said?

MR. LOCKHART: No, I think on political matters we're best talking to Democrats and they can make their own judgments.

Q You're not suggesting, Joe, that the New York Times made up this White House advisors?

MR. LOCKHART: Absolutely not. I'm suggesting there is a vast reservoir of people here who advise the President. There are thousands of them and they show up in the paper every day.

Q Joe, we understand the President is going to make some statement of contrition after this process --

MR. LOCKHART: Well, you understand more than I do. I don't know what he's going to do.

Q If you could just clarify for us -- where he's made statements of contrition in the past, and perhaps he'll make another one -- this article says that he's furious at the people that impeached him. How can he be contrite and furious at the same time?

MR. LOCKHART: You're asking me to talk about something I don't know about, which is what he's going to say or not say, so I don't have an answer.

Q In past when he's made statements of contrition, Joe, is his emotion one of contrition or one of being furious at the people who impeached him?

MR. LOCKHART: His emotion, as I know it, is he accepts responsibility for what he's done and he's determined to do the best job he can as President, moving forward doing the best job for the American people and, in a political sense, determined to help the Democratic Party prevail in the next election.

Q Joe, just to be clear about it, are you saying that the President's anger at House Republicans will not, in any way, animate his efforts on behalf of Democrats in the 2000 election?

MR. LOCKHART: What I'm saying is we are within a handful of seats of regaining the House. That's enough incentive to go out and work hard for Democrats around this country. And that's what he's going to do.

Q That's enough, but you're not denying that his anger could be part of the effort?

MR. LOCKHART: I'm affirmatively telling you that that is the motivator and that's enough.

Q Joe, is there any comment from the White House on the report that China is stepping up construction of a military base in the South China Sea, on Woody Island and --

MR. LOCKHART: I'm sorry, say the second part again?

Q There was a report yesterday -- well, in today's Washington Times, that China is stepping up construction of a military base in the South China Sea, on Woody Island and the Paracels Islands chain?

MR. LOCKHART: Yes, I think we're aware of that. It's something of concern and, as we've urged before, we urge them to work in dialogue with all of the parties concerned in the area there.

Q On China, are you also concerned about the buildup of missiles on the mainland aimed at Taiwan?

MR. LOCKHART: Well, the administration is aware of the growing deployment in China, in recent years, of missiles capable of striking Taiwan. This is not particularly new. It's been something that we've been aware of has been going on. You'll remember the testing of these missiles in 1996 precipitated the U.S. deploying the Area II carrier groups to the Straits.

We have a strong interest in maintaining peace and stability in the Taiwan Strait. We have supplied, for this reason, defensive arms to Taiwan consistent with the Taiwan Relations Act. We plan to continue to monitor the military balance in the Taiwan Strait closely, and meet our obligation to provide Taiwan the arms it needs for adequate defense.

Q But couldn't the buildup of these missiles endanger regional security?

MR. LOCKHART: Certainly. And that's why I've so stated the preceding points.

Q The report seemed to indicate that the number of missiles that we now believe are there have tripled. Is that, in fact, the case?

MR. LOCKHART: I'm not going to get into the detail except to acknowledge that we have been aware for some time of an increase and, again, this is not a new story, but it is something of concern.

Q So the current status -- the current number of missiles you now believe are there, you have known about for some time?

MR. LOCKHART: I believe that the buildup has gone over some time, and we are aware.

Q One more follow-up on that. There's talk about a U.S. missile defense umbrella. How seriously is the U.S. committed to defending Taiwan?

MR. LOCKHART: You know, theater missile defense technology is in a development stage and is some years away, and we'll make a decision in the future in this area, based on the development of the technologies, Taiwan's defense needs, and how we perceive the best way to maintain peace and stability in the Taiwan Strait.

Q Joe, now that you've finally sent forth the nomination of Richard Holbrooke, did the White House pass it by the Chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Senator Helms?

MR. LOCKHART: Yes. Yesterday.

Q They have it?

MR. LOCKHART: News to some of us. I knew that.

Q The White House passed it by Senator Helms? It's usually traditional, when you send up a major appointment on foreign affairs --

MR. LOCKHART: Well, it was sent up to the Senate --

Q Have you had a previous private conversation with Senator Helms?

MR. LOCKHART: Well, we certainly had discussions with -- I'm not sure if it was with Senator Helms or with his staff, over sending up the nomination, so I think he was aware of what our plans were.

Q How does he feel about it, do you know?

MR. LOCKHART: I think his able spokesman was quoted in the paper as saying that they're going to do their own due diligence, as they always do for any appointment like this, and they look forward to getting on with it quickly.

Q Joe, the President of Iran has been invited to Paris, I believe, for a state visit or an official visit of some kind. Is that the type of relations that we encourage our allies to engage in with Iran, or do we discourage them because we feel they are such --

MR. LOCKHART: I'm not aware of the invitation, so I'd have to look into that to see if the U.S. government had a view on that.

Q Joe, has the President read letters from 200,000 steelworkers which were brought here yesterday?

MR. LOCKHART: Has he seen them? No. I understand they came --

Q Why not?

MR. LOCKHART: Well, because they came in 23 boxes and I'm not sure that they'd fit in the Oval Office. But he's --

Q But you counted the number of boxes.

MR. LOCKHART: Yes, we did, because they came in one by one. But I think he's certainly aware of the concerns that have been raised by the steel industry, steel workers. And the President, with his economic team, and the Secretary of Commerce, have worked very hard to make sure that those concerns are addressed. And we have worked again very hard with some of our trading partners to express in very explicit terms our concerns about some of the activities, particularly concerning the hot-rolled steel.

Q Does the White House have any position on the work-fair bill --

MR. LOCKHART: I'm not sure we've seen -- I would have to check on that.

Q Joe, speaking of concerns, is the President concerned about the American Airlines problem with passengers --

MR. LOCKHART: I think the President is always -- has some concern over a major disruption of the kind we saw this week with American Airlines. But it's a matter that was in the courts and has been litigated in a court, so I don't think it would be appropriate to make any other comment.

Q Joe, to quickly revisit something from earlier -- how quickly after the recess can we expect to see Speaker Hastert here to be talking with the President like the good old days?

MR. LOCKHART: I don't have any particular dates or announcements to make, but I expect that when Congress gets back, the President looks forward to working with them quickly and in a bipartisan way. And I fully expect the President to meet both with Democratic and Republican leaders sometime after they get back.

Q How quickly after the Senate finishes its business can we expect to see a general news conference?

MR. LOCKHART: Well, I think you'll see the President in several situations -- we have a flurry of foreign leaders coming here over the next two or three weeks. You'll see him, and I'm working hard to secure a date sometime in the month of March.

Q Well, that's why I said "general" -- you say secure a date -- you're talking about a general news conference?

MR. LOCKHART: Yes, yes.

Q Would there be a news conference in Mexico?

MR. LOCKHART: No, there will be a chance the go in and do a pool spray during the bilateral meeting. You'll probably get a chance to ask a couple of questions, but there is no --

Q How about in Central America?

MR. LOCKHART: That's a ways down the road, I don't know.

Q Joe, can you tell us why there is not a press availability today with Schroeder and not a press conference in Mexico, since the last time we were in Mexico there was a bilateral press conference that went on for quite a while?

MR. LOCKHART: It is just based on decisions we make here. On Mexico I think it was -- Mexico I think has something to do with the timing. This is not an extended trip.

Q Mexican officials have said that the U.S. government specifically requested that there not be one.

MR. LOCKHART: Then it's because we decided not to do one.

Q Because?

Q You just went out of your way to mention that there are a number of foreign leaders coming here. Are you suggesting that you will go back to allowing pool sprays here instead of stills only after this is over?

MR. LOCKHART: That's what I'm suggesting.

Q But then why specifically did you decide the Mexico trip wasn't --

MR. LOCKHART: Because the Mexico trip has been planned over the last three or four weeks. We all know what we're talking about here -- the sort of looks out there like, gee, what's he talking about. (Laughter.)

Q -- you're going to go back to pool sprays with foreign leaders instead of stills?


Q In answer to Bill's question you just said you're going to go back to having pool sprays when foreign leaders visit instead of stills, but what about the notion of having press conferences with foreign leaders?

MR. LOCKHART: I think I just addressed that. Somebody asked --

Q But we were talking about pool sprays.

MR. LOCKHART: Okay. Next.

Q Joe, congressional Republicans want to get fast track moving and they've complained that the White House has not been as interested as previously in doing this, even though I believe the President mentioned it in the State of the Union. How interested is the White House in getting fast track as a priority?

MR. LOCKHART: The White House is interested in fast track, but as the President said, he believes he has to build -- we have to build a new consensus for getting it forward. We can't move forward with this unless we get a bipartisan spirit of cooperation from both Democrats and Republicans. And the President believes we need to work on working through some of those issues, whether it's questions of labor or environment, because we don't want to get to the end of the process and come up short like we did the last time we went through this.

Q Then you won't move forward with this unless you have a majority of Democrats for it?

MR. LOCKHART: No, I'm saying we need to build a new consensus that we believe will get the bill passed. I'm not getting into numbers.

Q What's he doing to build the consensus among Democrats?

MR. LOCKHART: I think there's work being done by the President's economic and trade team to try to build that consensus, and when we think that that's done we'll move forward.

Q Did he speak with Gephardt when the Congressman was up here recently about fast track?

MR. LOCKHART: Oh, I'm sorry, about fast track. I don't know if it came up. I think when he was here it was more of a conversation -- the Minority Leader came down in large part to talk about what his plans were and some of the themes that he planned to talk about in announcing that he was going to stay and not seek another office.

Q Are you working on this with labor unions and ecological groups?

MR. LOCKHART: I think they certainly have an interest in this and we're an inclusive group here.

Q Does the White House have a view for Senator Thompson's committee when it begins hearings later this month on whether to renew the Independent Counsel Act?

MR. LOCKHART: I haven't heard anything explicit, so I would have to go back and check. There's been a lot of talk among senators about trying to reform or toss the statute, but I just haven't heard -- I haven't been party to any explicit discussions here about whether or when we'll develop an official administration view.

Q Is it fair to say people who believe the President would not sign a bill that would simply renew it -- is that a fair assumption?

MR. LOCKHART: I think there has been serious issues raised with several of the investigations, so it's probably quite useful that Senator Thompson is going to launch a review of this and we look forward to seeing what he comes up with.

Q Would you count the White House as skeptical about renewing it as it now exists?

MR. LOCKHART: I don't think we would counter the conventional wisdom that says that -- that treats this with some skepticism.

Q Is the United States government paying for the President's defense in the trial in the Senate?

MR. LOCKHART: Certainly the United States government employs the White House Counsel's Office, which you well know, and the President pays for his private attorneys.

Q So Mr. Kendall and Ms. Seligman, for example, would be paid for by the President and not the government?

MR. LOCKHART: That's correct.

Q You can obviously foresee a situation whereby the President's interest in trying to forge bipartisan legislation with the President leadership perhaps could collide with the President's interest in getting Democrats elected in the House of Representatives and becoming the majority. Which would take priority"

MR. LOCKHART: Oh, I can equally see a scenario where Democratic ideas and agenda items will get support from Republicans who feel that they need to do something before they go back to the voters. So I think there is a scenario here where we push forward with the President's agenda, with Democratic ideas, that does well for the Democratic Party and we get things done. I don't think -- I think there is a false choice implicit in your question.

Q Republicans appear to be focusing more on targeted tax cuts such as marriage penalty or estate taxes. Would that be a better approach than the across-the-board tax cut that they're also considering? Would it make it easier to get a deal on taxes?

MR. LOCKHART: Well, I think the best way to approach this is the way the President has laid out, which is -- and some of this involves the sequencing -- we need to save Social Security and Medicare first. We need to reserve the bulk of the surplus for the next 15 years to ensure the long-term viability of Social Security and Medicare. And after that, we have an aggressive program to help promote savings and wealth accumulation, with our USA accounts, which is a half-trillion dollar tax cut, in effect.

As far as trying to compare the various ideas that are coming out of the Republican Party, the ideas put out recently are certainly more progressive than the across-the-board tax cut, but I think it skirts the more important issue of doing what we need to do first on Social Security and Medicare.

Q Joe, does the White House or the President have any view on the controversy over whether one of the Teletubbies is gay? (Laughter.)

MR. LOCKHART: No, but we understand Congressman Burton is going to launch an investigation into why Bert and Ernie share a bedroom. (Laughter.)

Q Oooh.

MR. LOCKHART: No, we have no --

Q -- watch Sesame Street.

MR. LOCKHART: They watch Teletubbies, too.

Q Are you going to regret that you said that?

MR. LOCKHART: No, I hope not. (Laughter.) Children's Workshop, coming to see me next week. No. We have an ever-expanding scale of ridiculous, and this pushes the envelope a little further.

Q Did you see Reverend Falwell on television, all over the television this morning?

MR. LOCKHART: I didn't. What did he say?

Q I don't remember. (Laughter.)

MR. LOCKHART: Wait, that's my answer.

Q No, I don't mean to be demeaning --

MR. LOCKHART: Sam has no recollection.

Q He didn't seem to know how to pronounce -- it's Twinky or Tinky?

Q Tinky-Winky.

Q Tinky-Winky -- he was never able to get it right.

MR. LOCKHART: Tinky-Winky. Bye, Scott. (Laughter.) At least there's one person here who's --

Q Thank you.

MR. LOCKHART: No, no. Everybody sit down. April?

Q Thank you. Joe, this is -- we're coming down to the wire with tomorrow. Granted, you're not going to be partying, but is there a sense of relief that this is almost over after over a year?

MR. LOCKHART: Sure. I think I've said that in the past and I think it will only be overtaken by relief when it actually is over.

Q What's next? (Laughter.)

MR. LOCKHART: What's next? What's next is we go to Mexico. And starting next --

Q Well, who could have imagined this story -- what I'm asking, anything coming up? (Laughter.)

MR. LOCKHART: A major effort to reform and ensure Social Security over the next 75 years; investing in education; investing in health care with the patients' bill of rights -- it's a big story, I know you'll all be covering it.

THE PRESS: Thank you.

END 1:39 P.M. EST