THE WHITE HOUSE
Office of the Press Secretary
PRESS BRIEFING BY JOE LOCKHART The Briefing Room
1:05 P.M. EST
MR. LOCKHART: I have no particular announcement to make, so I will go right to your questions.
Q Do you have a reaction to the decision by the immigration people about the Cuban boy?
MR. LOCKHART: I think the INS Director, Doris Meissner, did a good job of explaining the law that is involved here and how it was applied in this case. As far as the President goes, I think he was informed earlier of this decision. He believes that although this was a difficult case for the INS, they acted appropriately, they gathered the facts in a very comprehensive way and applied the relevant rules and regulations in law fairly.
Q Why was it a difficult case? I mean, if the child had been of any other nationality, he presumably would have been returned to his father forthwith.
MR. LOCKHART: No, I think it was a difficult case, first off because it involved a six-year-old boy. There were certainly people who injected themselves into this on both sides politically that brought a lot of attention to it and brought a certain politically charged atmosphere, and I think it took some time for the INS to work through and gather the facts, to go and establish who ultimately spoke for the boy -- and that's a term of legal art, but they had established that --
Q Are you saying the President approves of the decision, aren't you, really -- I mean, from your words?
MR. LOCKHART: I think the President believes that the INS went about this the proper way and have brought together the facts and are correctly interpreting the law as written.
Q So he approves?
MR. LOCKHART: Sure.
Q What do you say to the Cuban American community, Joe, who wanted him to stay here?
MR. LOCKHART: I think many have expressed views that are legitimate in trying to compare and contrast our society. There are certain obvious benefits to anyone to grow up in a society that's free and open, that enjoy the kind of freedoms that Americans do. I mean, there are many people around the world who envy the culture and society in which we all live here. But I think there are also many who understand the sanctity of family bonds and how important those are.
But I think, ultimately, those who enjoy the freedom and democracy here understand that we are a country of laws, we are a country that follows them and applies them fairly, in a way that reinforces our democracy and our freedom. And that's what INS has done in this case. But I think Doris Meissner would put it quite correctly when she -- her statement talked about how this was a difficult case and it is always difficult to gather the facts and to make judgments that are best for this young man, or would be for any person at this age.
Q Following up on that notion, the President approves that the law was applied correctly. Is there a sense of regret that the boy has to be sent back? Is there a sense that the law is not right and might need to be looked at?
MR. LOCKHART: I think for those who have criticisms of the process, they can take a look at it. I'm not aware from within the administration any need currently to reexamine the laws that govern INS and immigration.
Q New subject? Is the President taking or going to have any White House personnel or government personnel in his private home in New York? Are they taking any of their help with them, and how does this go?
MR. LOCKHART: The President, as you know, travels with people from security to military to people like me, White House staff. I think at the home, there will be some security, obviously, and for equally obvious reasons I'm not going to talk about the details of that.
As is when he travels in private homes, whether it be friends around the country or -- let me keep going -- or when he used to go back to Little Rock, there will be some small group of staff that go with him, but who will stay where the press pool stays, presumably.
Q I'm talking about a household staff that will run that house, actually. I'm sure that -- you know, 10 maids and 10 mops.
MR. LOCKHART: I don't think you will find 10 maids and 10 mops there.
Q But there won't be any government personnel?
MR. LOCKHART: The President, as the President, as all Presidents, and I think that those of you who used to travel to Santa Barbara and those of you who used to travel to Kennebunkport will know, that there are some government personnel that attend to the President for a variety of needs, who travel with him when he travels.
Q When the President is there, but I'm talking about the house, itself, when he's not there.
MR. LOCKHART: Oh, there would be no one there, as far as I know.
Q Kitty custody, did you find out who is going to get Socks?
MR. LOCKHART: My understanding on the cat and dog question is that they will remain here at the White House for some time.
Q What about the voting address -- the possibility that the President might actually make that his legal address?
MR. LOCKHART: It depends how close it is, the election. No, I didn't get a chance to ask him. I'll ask him on the way up.
Q Joe, when was the President notified of the decision on Elian Gonzalez? And has he spoken to Commissioner Meissner or with Janet Reno about the subject?
MR. LOCKHART: I don't know that he has spoken to them. I believe he was notified either late last night or early this morning.
Q By Sandy Berger?
MR. LOCKHART: I think it was by Sandy Berger and I think it was just because it was in the course of some conversations about the Shepherdstown talks.
Q Joe, both the London Daily Telegraph, as well as the Jewish World Review report that Al Bruner is living under protection of Hafiz al-Assad in Syria. Does the President believe that Bruner should be extradited to France, or not?
MR. LOCKHART: I'm not familiar with the story, so I'm not familiar with the --
Q Bruner was Adolph Eichman's deputy who sent 23,000 French Jews to the death camps. Now, he's in Syria. Does the President believe that this Nazi war criminal should, as part of this peace settlement, be sent --
MR. LOCKHART: I think my first answer indicated that I'm not familiar with that, so I'm not going to try to give you an answer. I'm not going to give you an answer.
Q Joe, since you said that the President approves of the decision by the INS today, does he --
MR. LOCKHART: I think people out here said that. My words were my words.
Q No, you were asked that and you said --
MR. LOCKHART: My word was, "sure." S-U-R-E. Go ahead.
Q In response to a question you said the President approved.
MR. LOCKHART: Sure. (Laughter.)
Q Since you acknowledged that, does the White House feel that the process or that the boy would be ill-served by a court challenge by parties --
MR. LOCKHART: Well, I think, obviously , whatever litigation that might ensure from this decision is something for the courts to decide, and not something that I think the White House and the administration or the President will express a view on.
Q The President attended actually to go to Chappaqua next week. When exactly did he decide to go up today?
MR. LOCKHART: Well, we had kept the better part of this week reserved for the President to participate in the Israeli-Syrian talks. Because of the way Monday and Tuesday played out, with the President traveling to Shepherdstown both Monday and Tuesday, we made the judgment last night just before leaving Shepherdstown, the judgment made by the team and the President, that his presence was not required today, Wednesday.
Having thought about that on the way back, the President indicated, because he just had one meeting, that it might be possible to go up and accompany the First Lady. So I'd say sometime probably around 8:00 p.m. or 9:00 p.m. last night he asked us to look into the feasibility of doing that. After a flurry of phone calls he made the decision that he wanted to go up.
Q Is he doing that in part because he doesn't want it to appear that he and the First Lady are going to be living apart?
MR. LOCKHART: He is doing it in whole because he has to balance the fact that he's got quite an important job with very demanding responsibilities, and the fact, like I think every American can understand, it's quite an exciting event to move into a house, and it's something that unless job or family requirements keep you from, you'd want to do. And when the schedule opened up today, I think it's quite obvious that he wanted to do this, and we're going to go ahead and do it.
Q Joe, now that the First Lady has moved out, how does that affect operations here at the White House and her official duties?
MR. LOCKHART: She will balance her duties, I think, as her spokespeople have done. I think as the year goes on, her concentration will be increasingly on making a case in New York for what kind of senator New York should have. But as far as things go here, we will -- they will not be impacted in any severe way. We'll continue to do -- the President will continue to do the job he was elected to do, and where we need to fill in, we'll fill in.
Q Joe, who will be hostess, though, say, for instance, social functions, not state dinners? I understand she may come back to those, but, say, social --
MR. LOCKHART: We'll find a way to make sure that everyone goes away pleased.
Q Joe, do you feel that the President has started feeling absent or loneliness from the First Lady's absence from the White House?
MR. LOCKHART: You know, the last time I answered a question for you, it got me in quite a bit of trouble, so I don't think I'm going to test my luck. The answer is, no; and I'm not sure. (Laughter.)
Q Let me ask you another question on India. Any comments, one, on the hijackers; and number two, that at the same time when they took over the airplane, India and U.S. were discussing about combatting terrorism together, but now, some feel that India was left alone by the U.S. to fight terrorism alone.
MR. LOCKHART: No, I think those people who say that are wrong. I think we were in close touch with the Indian government throughout the incident. We're also continuing to work with India on a series of efforts to strengthen our cooperation on fighting terrorism.
As far as the hijacking, I think what's important here is that we support a full investigation that's aimed at apprehending and prosecuting the hijackers. We do that, and that's what's important here, is that those who were responsible here are brought to justice.
Q One of the Kashmiri militants who was freed apparently made a speech in which he not only denounced the Indians, but denounced Americans, that we shouldn't rest until America is dispatched from the scene.
MR. LOCKHART: I hadn't seen that, but I think that's something you might expect from those who are able to perpetrate this kind of terrorism. I think we all should rest assured that the United States, as a government, will not rest until those who perpetrate these kinds of activities are brought to justice, whether it is an act of terror directed against Americans or whether it is directed against others, and we can find a way to support their investigation.
Q Joe, the menu for the White House New Year's Eve dinner was so impressive that I wondered whether there is any distribution of leftovers sent to agencies to help the homeless? (Laughter.)
MR. LOCKHART: My plate was clean at the end of it. You'll have to ask everybody else if theirs were.
Q Do you know if they do anything with the leftovers?
MR. LOCKHART: I don't know.
Q You don't know?
Q Are the Middle East talks open-ended, and what do you hear today?
MR. LOCKHART: I think, as I described yesterday, there are a number of committees that have been formed to deal with issues. The committees will be meeting over the next few days to work through the very difficult and tough issues that face them and that separate them.
I expect that for today, you know the President's schedule is his schedule. The Secretary of State, I'm informed, will be meeting throughout the day with the heads of the committees to get a sense of their work plan. And as far as where we go, I think as I said at the beginning of the week, we'll take stock at the end of the week after these talks have been ongoing for four days or so and make a judgement of what's the best way to move forward.
Q But, Joe, the President has now scheduled a long trip out to the Grand Canyon early in the week --
MR. LOCKHART: I haven't announced any travel for next week, except for New York.
Q How about announcing it?
MR. LOCKHART: I haven't announced any travel, except for New York.
Q Is he contemplating travel next week, though, that --
MR. LOCKHART: The President will travel to New York next Wednesday, I believe, to do a conference on Wall Street -- is it Wednesday or Thursday?
MR. SIEWERT: The conference is Thursday.
MR. LOCKHART: Thursday. Other than that, when we have other travel we'll announce it when appropriate.
Q Might he go to Shepherdstown tomorrow from Chappaqua?
MR. LOCKHART: He might.
Q Is that likely?
MR. LOCKHART: He might. Can't make a judgment now what's likely. We'll check in with the team at the end of the day, see where they are.
Q Joe, you said this morning that with regard to the school construction spending proposal, the President would try to advance that through the appropriations process rather than through the tax code --
MR. LOCKHART: No, I said in addition to the tax code.
Q Why now this new idea --
MR. LOCKHART: I think there's an urgent need around this country to modernize and repair our schools, so I don't think there is anyone who believes that need isn't there. It's a question of how we can do it. And I think in the last Congress, the Republican majority have been able to thwart our efforts because we were trying to do it through the tax code, because that's the best way do to this in order to leverage some money into a lot of money for local communities and schools.
I think we have a little bit more leverage when it comes to the appropriations process. We have found that we've been very effective in getting things done at the table late in the process. I think if you look at the 100,000 teachers, the 50,000 cops, that makes the case unmistakably. We're determined to get this problem addressed any way we can, and if the Republican majority wants to block it, we're going to find innovative ways to unblock it.
Q Joe, do you recall that the President expressed any objection when Toni Morrison described him as America's first black President?
MR. LOCKHART: The President has been known to remark on that subject at some length in speeches. The transcripts are quite available.
Q He wouldn't object to being called America's first gay President, would he, Joe?
MR. LOCKHART: I don't know that anyone's ever done that.
Q If they did, would he object?
MR. LOCKHART: I don't answer hypotheticals.
Q One other -- last one. The Washington Post reports that the President, on December 22nd --
MR. LOCKHART: I'm sorry, were you saying something? (Laughter.)
Q Yes. The Washington Post reports that the President, on December 22nd, congratulated the Church of Scientology for promoting religious freedom and building just communities, at the same time of your strong criticism of the Southern Baptists. Has John Travolta, who portrayed the President, possibly converted him?
MR. LOCKHART: No.
Q Joe, in a letter, a local American -- criticized the Secretary of State for issuing that global terrorism warning, mentioning Ramadan. But it hadn't proved that these people, in the name of Allah or in the name of God, they all do terrorizing, and the people like the hijacking of the Indian plane, and also they did say that in the name of God, Allah, we will see you again.
MR. LOCKHART: Let me do the first part of the question without the back. The State Department issues warnings based on their no double standard rule, and when they have information that details a threat to Americans abroad and they take steps to inform embassy personnel and U.S. government employees around the world, they are duty-bound and required to report that to the American public.
So this has nothing to do with trying to make a statement one way or another on any religion or any religious custom or any religious holiday. It has to do with their requirement to keep the American public informed of any threats that may be made against Americans in whatever time period they're made, and to keep them informed in a way that's timely with how we're keeping government personnel informed.
Q Joe, yesterday the President said he had not been aware until he saw it in the Post that the OSHA ruling covers work at home. Was he concerned about it when he read it?
MR. LOCKHART: Well, I think we're all a little bit concerned about the way it's been covered. This is not an OSHA rule. This was an advisory that was written to one company. And I think the Secretary of Labor put out a very clear statement yesterday on the fact that the federal government does inspections of work sites; we have neither the ability, nor the desire to inspect people's homes.
This is the kind of common-sense approach that we've taken from the beginning. I mean, if you look at the record of this administration you'll find that I think one of the reasons -- there is a lot of rhetoric from the party opposite, but what you have is results from this administration about streamlining the government, streamlining regulations. And it's a reason why next month we'll have the longest expansion in our history -- in our economy.
So I think some of the hyperventilating reaction to this completely overstated what this actually was. And I think the Secretary of Labor should be applauded for saying that we're now moving into a 21st century where telecommuting will be an important part of our economy and we ought to have a national dialogue about how we deal with this, how we make sure places are -- homes were people work are safe and people follow common-sense regulations.
But I think if you need any evidence of the politics of all this, I think one editorial today blamed it on the unions and the Vice President. So I think there is a lot of politics at play here. I think people should look at what actually the advisory does and look at what the Department of Labor's standards are, which are not -- certainly are not reflected by this one advisory.
Q Joe, Mrs. Clinton, like First Ladies before her, has advanced various interests, among them children, while she was here in the White House. What happens to causes like that now, now that she's campaigning?
MR. LOCKHART: Oh, I think we will continue to push very hard on a number of fronts. I think when you see the budget that will come out in early February you'll find that the issues that the First Lady has fought hard for are very well-represented and are very well-funded. The President shares many of these and he will continue to make the case on any number of fronts, but particularly on the ones that the First Lady has been so articulate in advocating.
Q Joe, on next week's trip, his public schedule is Thursday -- he's spending Wednesday night in Chappaqua, is that correct?
MR. LOCKHART: No. All I know at this point is that we'll be in Brooklyn and Manhattan on Thursday.
Q But he might not spend the night in Chappaqua?
MR. LOCKHART: He might not.
Q Okay. And he's not making any public appearances with the First Lady while he's in New York?
MR. LOCKHART: Not that I'm aware of, no.
Q Joe, at the house -- they're going up there, they're going to be opening boxes and moving --
MR. LOCKHART: I think sometimes we try to look at public figures in a way different than we look at ourselves, so let me try to make this clear. They're going to do exactly what you did when you moved into your house, and what everybody else in this room and what everybody else does when they move into a house.
Q I went out of town. (Laughter.)
MR. LOCKHART: Well, Bill went out of town, which probably for Bill was a good plan. (Laughter.) But this isn't complicated. This is an exciting time for anyone to walk through the door of a new house, to have the ability to make it look the way you want it to look, to make it comfortable, to make it your home. That's all the things they're going to do. With the President, obviously, having to be here to attend to his duties for the next year, but when he gets out, I think he's made clear that he plans to make a home there. And it's not much more complicated than that.
Q You're not saying, though, that there won't be a void here without a First Lady?
MR. LOCKHART: No, absolutely no. But I think the President -- you don't need to use my words -- I think the President addressed that quite directly at the last press conference about what he thinks about this, how much he supports the First Lady and her effort in New York, the temporary dislocation that it will cause, but it's something that I think a lot of people in this society in which we live now go through.
Q Joe, before he goes up, he's going to be meeting with the Democratic leaders about the agenda. Then he jets off to his new home in New York. Do you think there is kind of a sending opposite signals here about exactly --
MR. LOCKHART: No, I don't. I think it sends the signal that this was a very important meeting and he was willing to delay going up to New York for several hours to make sure that he had this meeting, to make sure he could make this statement on his agenda, and he'll be back here tomorrow.
The one thing that -- this President has probably received an unprecedented amount in both scope and depth of criticism. The one thing I've never heard him criticized for is, he doesn't concentrate on his job, he doesn't work hard enough. He will continue to do that, and I think anyone who misreads the message here does it at their own peril.
Q Doe he plan to send Mr. Carville to Israel for the referendum on this giving away the Golan Heights?
MR. LOCKHART: I think Mr. Carville, as a private citizen, makes his own decision and doesn't get sent by the President.
Q -- sent him there last time, I mean, asked him to go.
MR. LOCKHART: That would be your interpretation.
Q Do you think he will again, Joe?
MR. LOCKHART: I'd ask Mr. Carville. I can get him here someday for relief.
Q In an interview this week, Senator Lott suggested it might be a good idea for you to apologize to the Southern Baptist Convention for your comments.
MR. LOCKHART: Let me address that. I obviously -- go ahead.
Q I'm just wondering, if an apology is in order, if you stand by your earlier comments?
MR. LOCKHART: I think an apology is in order, and I've already made it. Several reporters called me at the time. This was a comment that I made to a question that I think I, up front, said I wasn't aware of the facts, and made a generalized statement that is missing some conditional words. As I explained to the reporters who called me right before Christmas, and I think I made very clear, that certainly my intentions were not to create the impression that was created, and even more, didn't want to create the impression that this was the President's belief, because it's certainly not his, and it's not mine. But it was an unfortunate use of language that created the impression, and for that I took responsibility.
And I also, because I took seriously the letters that came -- there was a letter from J.C. Watts to the President. I reached out to his office, and people talked to his office. I offered to talk to him personally, to explain it to him; he didn't think that was necessary. So I think those who are looking at this in a serious way understand and accept my explanation. For those who don't, that's their right.
Q Joe, I think that's a good thing for you to do. I really do, sincerely.
MR. LOCKHART: I'm worried now. (Laughter.) Hold on a second, give me that tape. (Laughter.)
Q I mean that.
MR. LOCKHART: Okay, anything else?
THE PRESS: Thank you.
MR. LOCKHART: Happy New Year.
END 1:32 P.M. EST