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Office of the Press Secretary

For Immediate Release September 8, 1999
                           PRESS BRIEFING BY
                              JOE LOCKHART

                           The Briefing Room

2:05 P.M. EDT

MR. LOCKHART: I think Sandy and Gene pretty much covered the foreign territory and the trip. So I don't know what else you have for me, but go ahead.

Q Tell us about the President being questioned today by Special --

MR. LOCKHART: I can't really elaborate beyond the statement that the new White House counsel, Beth Noland, put out. But he spent about an hour with the independent counsel, who's looking into some allegations. And as is our practice, we're not going to discuss the details.

Q Where was the interview?

MR. LOCKHART: Let me find out. Let me find out.

Q Is he a target, or is he a witness? Or did you have any idea?

MR. LOCKHART: We're not going to get into the details of his discussion.

Q Joe, Howard Wolfson, who is the spokesman for Mrs. Clinton's exploratory committee, says, "she stands by her Saturday statement," which was that the FALN convicts' "absence of a response speaks volumes," and the commutation is a mistake. And my question: when Senator Moynihan, former Mayor Koch, and now Senator Bill Bradley have all joined the First Lady in saying that this commutation is a mistake, does the President believe that all these good Democrats are wrong and shortsighted?

MR. LOCKHART: No. I think, as we've said all along on this, there are people who believe strongly, who have legitimate and worthwhile views -- whether they're Democrats or Republicans, whether they're religious leaders or law enforcement officials -- who expressed their view. I think those who support this, particularly those in the human rights and the religious community, have not been given the same amount of attention as those who oppose it. But that's how these things go sometimes.

But, you know, the President weighed the views of many, and I think came out with the decision that he felt was balanced and that was right.

Q Has the Vice President given the President any specific support in this controversy, where he is opposed by his wife?

MR. LOCKHART: Not that I'm aware of. I don't know that he's weighed in.

Q Why hasn't he given the President support, Joe?

MR. LOCKHART: This is a decision that the constitution prescribes for the President to make. The President has made it. I will stand here today, all day tomorrow and tell you the reasons. We can go over it again and again, if that's what your wish is. But why don't we keep this about the President, his decision, and why he made it.

Q Joe, is there any word from the last two undecideds? Has there been contact at all?

MR. LOCKHART: No, I haven't heard anything. I got a piece of paper this morning saying that there was no update.

Q Could you release Mr. Ruff's memo, so we could find out what all these technical reasons were?


Q -- to the President, or a version --

MR. LOCKHART: No. This is --

Q -- a version of it?

MR. LOCKHART: I have described it, probably, at more length than the actual memo, given the amount of time I've spent on this in the last week or so. But the President has -- we have argued in many times and many issues -- has the right to receive confidential advice from his staff, and that is a right that we will protect.

Q But Joe, on that line, you've said that the President took into account a whole wide range of views.


Q But yet, you're not giving us any indication of what the views were, so that we can present a balanced story of this to the American people.

MR. LOCKHART: Well, I think I have expressed that there were many in the religious community, many members of Congress, many people in law enforcement and the Justice Department, who weighed in. The President took them all into consideration. You are perfectly capable -- and have shown that capability -- of going and asking these people, because I've certainly seen a lot of them on your air. And they are able to express their opinion. I don't think there's any mystery here; I wouldn't try to create one.

Q One other point about this: is it even legally possible, now, for the President to withdraw the offer of clemency?

MR. LOCKHART: That's a hypothetical that has no meaning, because he has no intention to.

Q Joe, do you know why Mrs. Clinton waited for three weeks, before --

MR. LOCKHART: Why don't I cut this off at the pass. If you have questions seeking information on the First Lady's staff, or her motivation, why don't you go and ask her.


Q Ask her? Can you get me an appointment, or what? (Laughter.)

Q One more foreign policy question Mr. Berger left out. If the two presidents have spoken on Afghanistan, because according to the reports, including India Globe and --

MR. LOCKHART: That's India Globe, available at most newsstands here in Washington.

Q Really? (Laughter.)

Q -- the situation in Afghanistan is worse, worse than East Timor, really. Because of tortures, killings of women and children --

MR. LOCKHART: Listen, let me --

Q -- and India sent two officials to Washington to discuss the Afghanistan issue. And also if the President going to discuss with Chinese leader in New Zealand?

MR. LOCKHART: Let me tell you that we don't try to put a scorecard on these things and judge which is the worst and which is the worst conditions. We deal with these based on our ability to influence things around the world, our concern for humanitarian conditions around the world, our strategic interests around the world. And we deal with each of these on a case-by-case basis. And it's really not productive to try to compare any one situation with another.

Q It seems that President Clinton's going to meet with President Jiang, and the purpose for their meeting is to reduce the tension in Taiwan Strait. And President Jiang has already said, in Zurich, that they would not give up the use of a force. So what can we expect for the meeting?

MR. LOCKHART: Well, I expect there to be discussion on a wide range of issues, including the cross-Strait dialogue, trade issues, some security issues that we and China have in common. I think the President will use this opportunity to make -- and President Jiang will use it -- to state their case in an effort at communication to reduce any misunderstandings on where each country stands.

Q What kind of contact does the White House with the Department of Justice over the scope of this Danforth Waco probe event?

MR. LOCKHART: I don't think there's been any real contact over the scope and whoever may head this. I know that, as I reported some time last week, the Attorney General at one point solicited the White House view on the idea of going with an independent investigator, and Mr. Podesta expressed support for that idea.

But this is something that the Justice Department is handling. I'm not aware of input from here. I can't completely rule it out, but I think this is something that's primarily being done at Justice.

Q What's the state of play on the tax cut plan that you know of?

MR. LOCKHART: Well, it's hard to know. Congress came back from their recess today and I guess they're back out tomorrow. It's our hope that in that 24-hour grueling work schedule -- (laughter) -- they can find time to get the centerpiece of their agenda together, get it enrolled and get it down here so we can veto it. (Laughter.) But we know that's a pretty tough task.

Q Have you heard anything?

MR. LOCKHART: Listen, I've heard all sorts of things; that it's coming down sooner and it's not coming down at all, which has got to be the strangest thing I've heard in a long time.

Q Now, if you get it while he's in New Zealand, is he going to -- he's not going to veto it while he's out of the country?

MR. LOCKHART: Well, we haven't -- we'll make a decision once we get it. I suspect most of the time out there is going to be filled up with the APEC meeting and then the state visit. So, I think, once we're gone, I wouldn't expect too much movement. But I can't rule it out.

Q Joe, will there be a joint statement after President Clinton and Jiang meet?

MR. LOCKHART: I don't have the schedule. Let me get the schedule in front of me.

Q Joe, I'd like to follow up on that Jiang. it seems a bit odd that, on the one hand, we're negotiating with China now to get them into the WTO, and on the other hand, they're putting maneuvers, beach landings on Fujian Province, saber-rattling against Taiwan. Is the President going to make any linkage between this? Is he going to try and --

MR. LOCKHART: I think we have a broad relationship with China on the issue of -- the cross-Strait issues, and the dialogue. We've made it clear what our position is. We continue to make it clear, and this will be another opportunity. But we also believe that it's in the U.S. interest and America's interest to have China enter the WTO on commercially viable terms. And I don't view these things as mutually exclusive.

Q But doesn't the fact that we're continuing to press or to proceed on WTO imply that we find all this saber-rattling over Taiwan acceptable?

MR. LOCKHART: No, I think that that would be an inaccurate reading, and I can't imagine that the Chinese government would read it that way.

Q Joe, a non-Hillary question. For nearly four weeks, these FALN convicts refused to respond to the President's offer, then, quite suddenly, 12 of them agreed all at once, as if ordered. In the event that any of these begin bombing and escape to Cuba like their leader, William Morales, is there any fund that the President can utilize to pay reparations to the families of the victims?

MR. LOCKHART: Any fund? F-U-N-D? (Laughter.)

Q F-U-N-D.


Q There have been victims already of these people and now he wants to turn them loose --

MR. LOCKHART: Well, listen, I'm not going to replay the debate that you seem to want to do over and over again. We have a system of justice here. You know very well -- you may not want to tell your listeners what these people were convicted of, but the justice system knows. The President's decision was based on looking at the sentencings, the average sentence for crimes, looking at the mandatory minimum sentences that have come in subsequent to the incarceration of these people. And it's a decision that, as I've said over and over again, was something that was difficult, with passionate views on both sides. But it's a balanced and, the President believes, a just decision.

Q Do you have any view on Cisneros?

Q Joe, on the tax cut issues?

Q Although you said it seems a bit bewildering that Republicans might not send a tax cut bill down here, under parliamentary rules, if the President doesn't veto the bill then they wouldn't have to do a new reconciliation bill or new reconciliation instructions to work on a tax cut bill, so wouldn't that be a quicker way to renegotiate a new bill?

MR. LOCKHART: That if they don't send it down?

Q If it's not vetoed. If it's not vetoed, they don't have to --

MR. LOCKHART: Well, we can make this more complicated than it is. If it comes down here, it will be vetoed. If it doesn't come down here, we'll say they're afraid to send it down.

Q If it is vetoed, they would have to have new reconciliation --

MR. LOCKHART: Listen, again, the people in the House and the Senate are the experts on how they do their business and the parliamentary rules. I think if we get into a position where they are arguing that it is better for the process that they don't send it down and we don't veto it, then we will certainly listen to any approach they may make on that. But I will say that it does really expose how this piece of legislation -- which, as Tom DeLay said, would bring us to our knees -- was more about politics than about what's in the best interest for keeping this economic expansion going.

Q Do you think they've struck out in trying to sell it?

MR. LOCKHART: Everything I see and read tells me that.

Q Are you on your knees? (Laughter.)

Q Joe, can you tell us if the President considers the Cisneros independent counsel probe an example of the excesses of the independent counsel law? Or does he see that as something that --

MR. LOCKHART: I haven't talked to the President in particular in the last 24 hours about the decision. I think it does point out some of the problems that we highlighted, and the Justice Department highlighted, in our opposition to the reauthorization of the independent counsel law. You have a situation where you had an open-ended probe that spent an awful lot of money and an awful lot of time, and put an awful lot of people through a lot, that resulted in what you saw in court yesterday. So I think, certainly, the results from yesterday lend some credence to the case we made rather than detract from it.

Q Joe, is the President going to talk about anything other than health care at the event in the East Room?

MR. LOCKHART: No. I think it'll just be health care. It'll go through a variety of health care issues, from patients' bill of rights, Medicare, medical privacy, Kennedy-Jeffords, and some others. But it's all under the health care umbrella.

Q Nothing at the top on East Timor?


Q Did the President call Cisneros?

MR. LOCKHART: I think he spoke to him yesterday, last evening, just to send along his best wishes.

Q After?


Q Is he at all disappointed that his former Cabinet secretary admitted to a crime?

MR. LOCKHART: You know, listen, I think the former Secretary indicated his remorse for making the false statements. And I think he has accepted responsibility and he's moving on, and that's what we've done.

Q Joe, just to follow up: is it the President's view that it's not a serious crime or a serious allegation to make false statements in a background check? Or is it his view that there's a better mechanism than the independent counsel law to deal with it?

MR. LOCKHART: No, I think the President has not taken the case that it's not serious to make false statements. But I think, as the Justice Department made the argument to Congress in the independent counsel, the mechanism for looking at this is seriously flawed and shouldn't be reauthorized.

Q On the President's deposition this morning, we had our meeting with you at, what, 9:30 a.m.? A little after? Did you know about it at that time?

MR. LOCKHART: Sure did.

Q And this is not something that you would normally include in the President's day when you brief us?

MR. LOCKHART: No. I think, for those of you who have some experience of this, we generally let you know upon completion of these interviews, which is what we did today, faithfully following --

Q When was that set in the schedule?

MR. LOCKHART: I have no idea. You should check with either the Counsel's Office here, or Mr. Lancaster, I think is his name, his office.

Q Joe, a national security and international security question: how much effort U.S. is doing or President will do during his visit with APEC leaders, and Russian and Chinese leaders, to bring Osama bin Laden to stand trial? Because he's now involved internationally terrorizing the people around the world, including in Kashmir.

MR. LOCKHART: Yes, well I think our efforts to bring terrorists to justice are one of the highest priorities of the President's national security agenda. Terrorism and the threat of terrorism, and the effort to bring terrorists to justice, is always a subject that's discussed when the President meets with his counterparts around the world. But as far as what we're doing and what we can do, I'm just not going to talk about that from here.

Q Joe, can you tell us about the status of the negotiations with the House and the Senate over the bill that was approved by the Senate trying to broaden the authority of the President of the United States to impose sanctions on foreign companies who are dealing with narco-traffickers like -- in Colombia?

MR. LOCKHART: I don't have an update on that. Let me -- we'll look into that for you.

Q Joe, Sandy said that the President discussed money-laundering and corruption with President Yeltsin today in the phone call. Will that issue also be on the agenda when he meets with Prime Minister Putin?

MR. LOCKHART: I think whenever he meets, whether it be the Prime Minister or the President, the issue of money and crime, corruption, is on the agenda. I expect it to be this weekend.

Q Was this a long-scheduled call, Joe, or a couple of days? Or does Yeltsin just pick up the phone and call his friend Bill and talk for an hour?

MR. LOCKHART: I don't know when it got scheduled, but it was certainly scheduled. I know I heard some talk about this yesterday --

Q Who initiated it?

MR. LOCKHART: President Yeltsin. And I think in addition to just touching base, you know, the President will meet with the Prime Minister at the APEC meeting, and I think President Yeltsin wanted a chance to touch base and go over some agenda items.

Q Do you have the time, yet, for when this White House philanthropy conference will be held, the one that Paul Newman will be attending?

MR. LOCKHART: Ah, Paul Newman. White House philanthropy. No. Let me check into that. I've heard something about that somewhere, but I don't remember. Any particular interest in Paul Newman coming here to the White House? (Laughter.)

Q Thank you.

END 2:23 P.M. EDT