THE WHITE HOUSE
Office of the Press Secretary
PRESS BRIEFING BY JOE LOCKHART The Briefing Room
11:30 A.M. EDT
MR. LOCKHART: Welcome back. One quick announcement: you are all invited to attend the retirement farewell party today of Colonel P.J. Crowley, 4:30 p.m. in the Indian Treaty Room, over in the Old EOB. So, if you want to go over and share a celebratory toast to P.J., let us know down here and we'll get you over there.
Q Is the President doing something this week on low-interest loans to Turkey related to the earthquake?
MR. LOCKHART: I haven't heard anything about that. Let me look into it. I know we did a briefing here last week with Brady Anderson, but let me check that out. I hadn't heard that.
Q Is there any chance that United States forces would join any kind of international security or peacekeeping force in East Timor?
MR. LOCKHART: Well, I think there is a U.N. mission traveling to Indonesia and East Timor now. They're going to need to assess the problem there. As we've said for some time now, the Indonesian government is responsible for restoring a secure environment and accepting the wishes of the people there, which they have agreed to do. And now we want to see the results.
The U.N. team will report back within the next couple of days and make an assessment on any potential international peacekeeping force, and we'll take a look at that recommendation.
Q The Australians have already offered to have a force and the President spoke to the Prime Minister. The Foreign Minister says that the U.S. is "Kosovoed out," that it doesn't intend to or doesn't seem willing to join any kind of -- is that a reflection of what President Clinton told the Prime Minister?
MR. LOCKHART: I don't think so. I think that he perhaps has gone out a little too far in hypothetical land. We need to assess what needs to be done, what best needs to be done. The important thing now is, as we've stressed, is the Indonesian government getting control of the situation and restoring a secure environment. But the U.N. team will take a look at any international force, and once they've made a judgment on that, we will, as will many countries, take a look at whether we participate.
Q Is the President going to heed the First Lady's advice suggesting that he withdraw the clemency offer for the Puerto Rican militants?
MR. LOCKHART: No, I think the President made clear -- or the Counsel here for the President made clear that the offer that he laid out, now about a month ago, remains open; that if they conduct themselves in a way that abides by their parole and before their sentences are commuted sign a statement formally renouncing violence, the sentences will be commuted.
There has now been almost a month that has elapsed since the offer was first made, and we thought it was appropriate to get this issue resolved, so that's why we communicated with them last Friday, indicating that we need an answer and a signed renunciation of violence from each of these people by Friday of this week.
Q Joe, we were told by a White House official that the offer would stand until the end of this presidency. Suddenly, there seems to be a new urgency put upon it to resolve the issue.
MR. LOCKHART: I don't think so. I think technically these things generally -- and it's not an everyday occurrence, but technically, when an offer is made it's done in an open-ended way. We certainly -- it was our expectation that an answer would come quickly. This issue has been around now for several years; it's quite controversial; there are people with strong and legitimate views that they've expressed on both sides. I mean, this is an issue that the Council of Churches, Cardinal O'Connor, Desmond Tutu, former President Carter have all urged the President to take action on.
When answers were not immediately forthcoming, we talked -- Counsel's Office talked to the attorneys. They expressed some legitimate issues about trying to get to each of these people who the offer has been made to and make the case and discuss what the offer is. But I think at the end of last week, after four weeks passing, we made the judgment that it was time to get this resolved, and therefore, we gave them another week to make up their mind.
Q Were you concerned that they were trying to change the deal to try to modify it?
MR. LOCKHART: No, I think there was -- I can't speak for any of the people and I don't know that their attorneys have done much talking to the press, but there was certainly some statements made in the press and in public that indicated that maybe they needed to stretch this out in order to get a better deal. This is the result of a painstaking process led by the former White House Counsel Chuck Ruff. It balances the legitimate concerns of all people who weighed in, all people who had something to say on it. But ultimately, the decision reflects that balance, and it's not negotiable. And the people who are involved here need to make the decision about whether they can abide by the parole and whether they will indeed in writing renounce violence.
Q When did the process begin? When did the process that Ruff --
MR. LOCKHART: I know it went on for many months. I know that the conclusion of it -- I know that Mr. Ruff wanted to get it concluded before he left and that he did. He got the recommendation and the decision from the President just before he left.
Q Joe, if after four weeks refusal these members of a terrorist gang do sign a promise to renounce violence, how reassuring is such a last minute written promise to be good, when it's signed by terrorists?
MR. LOCKHART: Well, let me try to take what I think are some facts from that question and the rhetoric out of it and answer it.
I think, again, there are legitimate concerns raised by the lawyers for these people about getting to -- I think there's one lawyer who works, who represents most of these people about traveling around, getting a chance to talk to them in a one-on-one way, explain what the offer is and to get a decision. And I think they have spent some time. I think they've had enough time and I think allowing them to go to the end of this week to make up their mind is more than adequate for them to understand what the offer is and understand their rights.
Now, as to how good is this? It is part of the basis for parole. If the renunciation of violence is not real and violence is advocated in any way, the parole will be repealed and they will go right back to jail.
Q Joe, was Jonathan Pollard, to your knowledge, involved in any plans to bomb, kill and maim anybody?
MR. LOCKHART: You would have to talk to those who prosecuted him.
Q Have you heard anything back from the attorneys? Do you have any word on whether any of them are inclined to accept this?
MR. LOCKHART: I don't, but I do know that that they understand that the offer runs through this week.
Q The renunciation of violence isn't the only requirement; in fact, there were some who spoke on behalf of the Puerto Ricans who said the problem wasn't the renunciation, it was some of the other travel restrictions and -- can you tell us specifically what it is that they have to sign?
MR. LOCKHART: Listen, I don't know what they're talking about. I know that there are conditions of parole that are not set by anyone here that involve what you can do, who you can talk to, who you can't talk to. Those are conditions of any parolee who comes out of the prison system in this country.
The additional condition that the President imposed was on the renunciation of violence and publicly, in writing. That's the only one that I'm aware of -- I think I've read through most of --
Q That's the only one that President Clinton is requiring, is a written renunciation?
MR. LOCKHART: As far as I know, yes.
Q Joe, some aspects of this seem to take on the appearance of a partisan political maneuver gone awry. Is that a fair opinion of this? And has the First Lady somewhat shot herself in the foot by calling for this offer of clemency to be rescinded?
MR. LOCKHART: Let me do what all I'm equipped to do, which is to deal with the facts here. This was not a partisan maneuver. This was, as I just said, a painstaking process that tried to look at the case that both sides were making, and trying to come to a balanced conclusion of what the best thing for the President to do was.
And, remember, these are people who were convicted of serious crimes, but not of maiming and killing. And if you look at even the mandatory sentencing guidelines now, most of these people have served longer than they would have served if they were sentenced now. I think if you look at the trend line, sentencing has gotten much more stringent and tight in the last decade or so.
So looking at the concerns raised by a number of people and trying to balance them, the President thought this was the best approach and came down with the balanced decision that we have announced. And I think there have been many who have sought to inject politics, and many who have thought to inject a motive here. And all I can is that they're wrong.
Q Did the Puerto Rican congressman that denounced Hillary Clinton so vociferously, was that injecting politics in your term, Joe?
MR. LOCKHART: No, I think there have been many members of Congress, some in the Hispanic caucus in particular, who have been very vocal and adamant about this. And, in fact, they, if anything, have criticized the President for imposing these conditions. They believe, that for reasons that the President did not embrace, that these people should be released without conditions. The President doesn't agree.
Q Joe, if the government of Indonesia does not keep its commitment to the United Nations and does not invite an international security force in, in addition to that, is there anything the United States can do about this? And, as you think about that question, is there anything specific being drafted for the APEC meeting for the United States and other --
MR. LOCKHART: Well, certainly it will be a subject of conversation. I'm not going to get into what we will do if they don't do blank. But we have made very clear to the government of Indonesia that they need to keep their commitment to respecting the will of the people of East Timor and they need to restore an environment that is secure for the people there.
Q But the United States and other nations have been making it clear for several days now. Do you see any evidence that that message is being received?
MR. LOCKHART: The government of Indonesia has said publicly and has begun to take action to try to restore a secure environment there, but we'll have to see what happens. At this point, it's not words that people are looking for; it's what's going on on the ground.
Q Joe, you've obviously carefully avoided directly responding to any questions about Mrs. Clinton's comments on this Puerto Rican prisoner issue. What is your policy going to be as her campaign unfolds and she weighs in as she has on this issue? Are you going to avoid commenting on anything that she suggests?
MR. LOCKHART: Listen, I'm not trying to avoid commenting on anything except do what I'm supposed to do here, which is talk about what the President's doing, why he's doing it, and we certainly get into the field of politics quite often in talking about that, but I'm not going to try to speak for anyone else's campaign -- you know, whether it be the First Lady, the Vice President or the seven Republicans or 10 Republicans that are running for President. I don't think it's appropriate.
Q So you're saying her campaign is going to be treated like any other campaign when it comes to reaction from the podium here?
MR. LOCKHART: I'm saying that I wouldn't expect a running commentary on how is it going, because I've got enough to do with what I've got here.
Q Does the President support independence for Puerto Rico? Does President Clinton support independence for Puerto Rico?
MR. LOCKHART: Yes. And this process has been ongoing, but we support their right to a referendum. Let me look at this a little more to get the exact wording on it. Let me go, Wendell, and then I'll -- yes?
Q Did the Vice President weigh in on the clemency decision? Was his input sought by the President?
MR. LOCKHART: No. I don't have any evidence that he was involved in the process.
Q Joe, on the timing, when you say many months, that Ruff was working on this for many months -- the question obviously is, was this before Mrs. Clinton entertained --
MR. LOCKHART: If my memory serves, White House Counsel Jack Quinn worked on this, and this was something that Mr. Ruff inherited when he came over to assume the job of White House Counsel, which was long before the First Lady made it clear that she was looking at a New York Senate race. And I think the hundreds of thousands of petitions have been coming long before that. And I think the timing of the decision probably had -- certainly had something to do with Mr. Ruff's personal plans of wanting to get this wrapped up since he had worked on it for so much time before he left for private practice.
Q And why has the President not come forward to defend this or explain it? He's not been on record.
MR. LOCKHART: The President's been on vacation.
Q Joe, based upon the reaction in some circles to the clemency decision, the offer, will the President weigh the political impact of some of his decisions, particularly as they apply to New York and might that, in fact, cause him to not weigh a case based directly on its merits if he were to also include in what the political ramifications might be?
MR. LOCKHART: I think as the President has said many times in many forums, he believes that the best politics is good policy, so he will continue to pursue what he thinks is in the best interest of Americans, and in the best interest of all Americans.
Q Joe, there have been a tremendous number of media questions about whether George W. ever used cocaine. Do you know if any media have asked the same question to a potential U.S. Senate candidate from New York, and do you have an answer?
MR. LOCKHART: I certainly don't have an answer to that question. Why don't you ask your colleagues if they've asked?
Q Do you know of any that have asked, or has it just been a total absence of asking this cocaine question of Hillary?
MR. LOCKHART: Must be a total absence. You guys have all missed a good story.
Q Will the President veto the tax cut before he leaves for New Zealand?
MR. LOCKHART: The President will veto the tax cut legislation when it gets here. You will remember they passed this now as most of us were thinking about beginning our summer vacations. Well, we've finished our summer vacation; they've spent a month trying to sell this with no results that I can tell. In fact, just the opposite. I think the Republicans went home, spent a good bit of time selling the tax cut plan, and got a large dose of reality. America wants Social Security and Medicare protected, they want to pay the debt down, and they want to invest in our priorities, like education.
So when they get around to sending it, the President will veto it. It does raise a question about what they're waiting for, but when it gets here, it will be vetoed.
Q Joe, why is the President campaigning so actively against the tax cut bill? He has the power of the veto. It gives the appearance that he's a little more concerned about whether or not the Republicans can carry this through with a lot of support of the American people?
MR. LOCKHART: Well, that concern would be misplaced, and it's not felt here. The President knows that we're going to get out of the political season pretty quickly. The Republicans are going to send down the tax bill, they're going to make their point, which is what they stand for. We're going to veto -- and then we're going to get to the real business of trying to figure out the appropriations process -- taxes, budget -- for next year.
Q Why not just veto it, though? Why this huge campaign against it?
MR. LOCKHART: Listen, we can't veto something that isn't here yet. And we're going to continue to talk about what our priorities are and what the right way to use this historic budget surplus is. I think all you have to do is pick up the newspaper or watch television or go out and talk on the street and find that people understand what we should be doing with this surplus. And there is no groundswell out there, there's no any swell, there's not a little creek, there's not a little puddle, for the Republican tax cut proposal.
Q Joe, the President has 10 days to act on the bill when he does receive it. If he's in New Zealand, will he just veto it there, or are you planning a veto ceremony --
MR. LOCKHART: We'll make our judgment once we have the bill here. Ann, Barry has just handed me a statement on December 14, 1998, by the President on Puerto Rico and its status, which I'd be glad to make available to you afterwards. I'd be glad to read it to you, if you want it now?
Q Give us the headline.
MR. LOCKHART: "I have advocated enabling the people of Puerto Rico to determine their future status among all the options, continuing the current government arrangement known as commonwealth, nationhood, either independent from or in association with the U.S. and statehood." And it goes on.
Q I'd like to follow up on Peter's question of how you're going to finesse these questions about the First Lady's comments on particular issues -- what's a campaign issue, what is something that's in the role of First Lady?
MR. LOCKHART: I didn't see any aspect --
Q Well, you said you didn't want to have a running commentary on --
MR. LOCKHART: No, listen --
Q For example, the First Lady has some sort of event on AIDS, which is obviously an issue that is of great importance to New Yorkers. Is that something you comment on? Is that a campaign issue? Is that a First Lady issue?
MR. LOCKHART: I think we'll just have to do it on a case-by-case. Certainly, if it's got something to do with where the President is and on the President's record, it's a legitimate issue that I'll take questions on.
Q Joe, aside from the issue of commenting on these things, the President would presumably have a lot of power to affect events in New York -- different issues, whether it's teaching hospitals or Medicare, many different things. Is there any attempt here, internally at the White House, to build a firewall between what the needs of the campaign might be and what ends up as policy here at the White House?
MR. LOCKHART: I think the last couple weeks should show you how strong the firewall is.
Q But is there something like that?
MR. LOCKHART: It's self-evident.
Q On another subject, is the President concerned about the trend towards consolidation in broadcasting -- CBS/Viacom is only the latest example of it. Nothing personal there, John.
MR. LOCKHART: I haven't talked to the President about this particular merger. I think the President, as a broad practice, believes that mergers that help companies remain competitive at home and globally can be a good thing. But those that sort of restrict consumers and negatively impact consumers need to be taken a look at. On this one, I can't imagine that he would have, or would express, a view.
Q -- by this particular one. There's a great trend toward consolidation. As you know, the FCC ruling regarding stations, on August 5th I think it was -- more consolidation. And there are those who say this does not serve the public interest. Does the President have any view on that?
MR. LOCKHART: I have not heard him express a view, either positively or negatively, on consolidation in the media business.
Q Will the administration make a renewed push with its tobacco tax proposal as one means of helping, within the spending limits?
MR. LOCKHART: Yes, I think we've always felt like raising the price of a pack of cigarettes was good and sound health policy. We know from the studies that less kids will start smoking as the price goes up.
We know, and everyone knows who watched the debate last year what happened when Big Tobacco weighed in, with all of their resources. We proposed it again this year, because we think it's good health policy.
I think there's some sentiment, and some thought, that given where the Republicans are, and given, now, that they have to add up their numbers and try to avoid spending the Social Security surplus, that there may be some renewed enthusiasm because it does have benefits as health policy, and I think that's popular with the American public. And it will also help them get out from underneath the numbers crunch that they've created for themselves.
Q Joe, can you shed some light on tomorrow's health care event and Thursday's crime event?
MR. LOCKHART: We will talk tomorrow about the importance of passing a strong patients' bill of rights that applies to all Americans. I think there is increased support for that in the last month to six weeks, including some important members of the Republican Party. So the President will again call on them to move on a patients' bill of rights. We will also talk about the importance of strengthening Medicare, including providing for a prescription drug benefit.
Thursday, we will take another shot at trying to get Congress to move on gun control legislation, and talk about violence and kids.
Q Secretary Cisneros a short time ago agreed to a plea agreement. He's pleading guilty to one count, a misdemeanor count of making a false statement to the FBI. Does the White House have any advance notice of that, or any reaction?
MR. LOCKHART: No. I think we're finding out from you telling us, so let me see if we get something on that.
Q Joe, the official statement on Timor yesterday said that the U.S. would support an international action. In his conversations with Secretary General Annan, has the President made an offer of U.S. troops? In effect, has he said to the Secretary General, if you need us, we're there for you?
MR. LOCKHART: No, he had made no offer at this point because I think Kofi Annan and the U.N. have not made the determination yet that a peacekeeping force is necessary here, or would be useful here. They will be in the region -- tomorrow, I think they arrive. They will report back, and we will be in consultation through our U.N. Ambassador and our national security team here.
Q The President was scheduled, by the AP, to teach a math class in Olney, Maryland, today. You're aware of that, Joe?
MR. LOCKHART: I'm aware he's going to a school in Olney, Maryland, today.
Q Will the Governor and/or Lieutenant Governor of Maryland be there, or absent?
MR. LOCKHART: The governor of Maryland will be there, and Representative Morella will be there, and Senator Sarbanes, I believe, will be there. I thought that was a trick question. (Laughter.)
Q Why would you think that, Joe?
MR. LOCKHART: Well, you know, I've been away, you've been away. We've missed each other -- sort of.
Q Joe, the Puerto Rican clemency offer is such a hot-button issue. Has the President spoken to Congressman Luis Gutierrez of Illinois and Congressman Serrano of New York, who are very involved in this issue?
MR. LOCKHART: I don't think he has spoken to them recently. I certainly know they have had a chance to express their views in the past, and they have. But I'm not aware that he's spoken to them any time since this has become an issue to be discussed from here.
Q Are you going to have an APEC briefing?
MR. LOCKHART: Tomorrow -- what time? Do we know?
MR. HAMMER: Working on the time.
MR. LOCKHART: Working on the time. Definitely tomorrow, which you know is Thursday in New Zealand.
Q Yes. Thank you.
MR. LOCKHART: Thank you.
END 11:55 A.M. EDT
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