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Office of the Press Secretary

For Immediate Release January 12, 2000
                           PRESS BRIEFING BY
                              JOE LOCKHART

                           The Briefing Room

12:25 P.M. EST

MR. LOCKHART: I'm not sure there is anything left, but welcome to our weekly briefing here -- a new feature of the millennium. I think we'll do it next week on Tuesday, if that feels good for everybody.

Yes, sir.

Q Joe, did you have a chance to read Robert Reich's editorial, and what do you think of his comments that gun and tobacco lawsuits undermine the democratic process?

MR. LOCKHART: Well, I will resist the temptation to call it short-sighted. But -- no, I think -- seriously, seriously, I think that the Constitution is fairly clear in investing power in the Executive Branch and the Judicial Branch and in the Congressional Branch. We have a congressional majority right now that seems intent on thwarting the will of the majority in this country on gun safety, on tobacco, and therefore, the President will use the authority invested in him by the Constitution and the laws of this country to seek alternative solutions.

Q But, Joe, I mean, Mr. Reich's major point was that if you don't like the Congress, change it.

MR. LOCKHART: Well, if he wants to go out and work for a different Congress, then I applaud him on that front. But while the President is here, he has executive authority. He also is tasked with working with Congress, which he has done, but this particular Congress has made the decision that the interest of a narrow minority are more important than the majority on these issues. And there are a number of ways that we can go at this problem, and the President I think believes that it is his responsibility, indeed his obligation, to do that.

Q But, clearly, Joe, the Constitution wasn't written in such a way that the President can rule by fiat.

MR. LOCKHART: The President is not ruling by fiat. I think there are areas where he has executive authority; there are areas where we can seek traditional redress on issues. And I think these are the areas that the op-ed in question are dealing with. The President certainly isn't able to dictate these things, but where able to make a case in a court of law we think it's wholly appropriate.

Q Joe, do you have any comments on the decision of Great Britain to maybe refer Pinochet to Chile, even though his entire regime has been marked as one of the bloodiest in South America?

MR. LOCKHART: Well, we have always said, and I think have consistently said, that this is a legal matter to be resolved between the United Kingdom, Chile and Spain. On the specific issue, this is something that the British government has made a decision on, although as I understand it, it is now open for some comment. But as from the beginning, we've said we would respect the decision made by the British legal system and that still stands.

Q Joe, what will the President's message be to Gerry Adams and the Sinn Fein delegation today? Will he be emphasizing the need for disarmament? And secondly, is the President planning to go to Ireland this summer?

MR. LOCKHART: I have no travel plans to announce for you, but I can tell you that the President remains very engaged in the Northern Ireland peace process. He recently met with Mr. Trimble; he's had a conversation with Prime Minister Blair yesterday; he'll meet with Gerry Adams today. And I expect them to discuss all aspects of the implementation of the Good Friday Accord.

Q -- disarmament?

MR. LOCKHART: I think that's one of the aspects, but I expect a discussion on all aspects.

Q Joe, Janet Reno has publicly told attorneys of the family of Elian Gonzalez in Florida that the state court may not challenge the ruling by the INS. Any comments?

MR. LOCKHART: Again, I think this is one where the INS and the Justice Department are moving forward with this case, and it's something that the questions are best put to the Attorney General and to the INS.

Q But Joe, the Justice Department has allowed to slip the date certain to return Elian Gonzalez. Depending on how far up in the federal courts it goes, it could be a while before he's back in his father's custody, if he ever goes back. Is the judicial system here not denying his father access to his son?

MR. LOCKHART: I think that the Justice Department is looking to make sure that the judicial system worked properly here. And I think that was the message in the letter that the Attorney General wrote today.

Q Does the administration stand on the grandparents' rights case being heard before the Supreme Court today?

MR. LOCKHART: Let me check on that. I saw something -- this was the case out of Washington state, I think. The administration actually has done some work on what constitutes family, as far as issues like sick leave. But as far as this case is concerned, the administration has filed no brief or taken a position.

Q On Gerry Adams' visit here today, did you determine if the President invited him? And also, how important is peace in Northern Ireland to the President's legacy?

MR. LOCKHART: This specific meeting was requested by Mr. Adams. But the President obviously is glad to spend the time necessary to continue consultation with all of the parties.

Let me take that question and the question -- as I walked in, you seemed to be badgering Gene and Bruce about. I just think you're approaching this from the wrong direction. The President has spent seven years working on a number of issues, whether it's his economic strategy that has resulted in what will soon be the longest expansion in our economy in history; his crime strategy, his welfare strategy; but also his strategy around the world, which involves protecting our national interests, making the world a safer place, and trying to defuse hot spots around the world where there has been problems with moving the peace process along.

This is one of those areas. He's worked on it since the first day he's been here. He's taken what, at the time, was thought to be bold steps to move this process forward. This is about peace. This is about whether Northern Ireland will become an area that will fully participate in the economic recovery, and the economic renaissance, that Ireland and Europe are experiencing, or whether it will be an area that will be bogged down in the ancient religious hatred that has so dominated the last decades in that area.

So I don't think the President looks at this and says, how does this affect me? He looks at it as, how does it affect the people of this country? How does it affect the people in Ireland? -- whether it be the Northern Ireland peace process, or the Middle East peace process, or work we're doing in Africa. This is all about doing the job that he was elected to do, and doing it in a way that I think the American public supports.

Q Joe, back to Elian Gonzalez if we could. As this case now prepares to make its tortuous way through the federal court system, would the administration consider working out some sort of visitation arrangement for his father to see his child during that time?

MR. LOCKHART: I think as the State Department has indicated, we have indicated to the Cuban government and communicated to the Cuban government that we would facilitate an expedite a non-immigrant visa for the boy's father, should he wish to come to this country. So, yes.

Q -- the legal course, as to whether Elian Gonzalez goes back to Cuba. But has he ever expressed an opinion? I mean, does he think that Gonzalez ever will go back to Cuba? Has he ever mentioned whether he thinks realistically it will ever happen?

MR. LOCKHART: I think what he's expressed is, what should be done is what's best for the boy, and what the facts and the law dictate. The INS obviously has come down on what the facts and the law tell them. There are those who have different opinions. And only time will tell to see how this will get litigated.

Q Does he feel that a month or two delay in reuniting the child with his father could in any way be considered what's best for the boy?

MR. LOCKHART: Well, I think that it is not within his authority, at this point, to dictate that. There's a process here that the INS and the Justice Department are running. I think he believes that the INS and Justice have acted properly here. And they, as the Attorney General's letter set out today, there are still steps that they will need to take.

Q Would it have been better if INS had acted more quickly at the start? I mean, it was some time before there was really a clear INS/DOJ statement on it. He'd been here a week? Ten days?

MR. LOCKHART: Oh, I don't think so. I think they moved very quickly from the start. But this was a complicated case, and they needed to gather the facts. And I don't think they should have made a decision based on, well, we should get this taken care of quickly so that we don't take public pressure. There are important factors in this. They proceeded, I think, quickly, gathered the facts, and when they had the facts gathered, they applied the law. And that's what they're charged to do.

Q Joe, there is a dispute with Mexico in terms of NAFTA, about the trucks from Mexico coming to the United States. The Mexican government just threatened to close its border to American trucks. Is this administration working with Mexico on this? Is the United States government afraid of Mexico closing its border to the American trucks?

MR. LOCKHART: I know that there's been some discussion about this. I know that we have worked very closely with the Mexican government. But I don't have an update in the last few days on where the situation stands. You can ask me again tomorrow.

Q Joe, there have been attempts to improve relations with Cuba that have been set back so often -- Cuba shooting down the plane as a big example. Does the President regard the controversy over the Elian Gonzalez boy as another setback to attempts not at normalization, but simply to improve the atmosphere between the two countries?

MR. LOCKHART: I don't know if he's made a judgment one way or the other on that. I know that if you look at what we've done, we have sought to improve people-to-people contacts, whether it be some charter flights and remittances that have been expanded over the last year. But I don't know that he's made a judgment on whether this case has done anything to impact the relations.

I think he's looked at this as most Americans have, as a case that involves a young boy and a legal system that tries to protect that boy and tries to do what's best for that boy.

Q In terms of Cuba, the President is supposed to announce in a couple of weeks another suspension of Chapter 3 of Helms-Burton. Is the President afraid in any way that this case of Elian Gonzalez will affect the democratic candidates for the President and also for Congress?

MR. LOCKHART: I haven't heard any discussion like that.

Q Does the administration have any comment on the America Online merger?

MR. LOCKHART: Not in particular.

Q Is there any concern about the size --

MR. LOCKHART: Well, obviously, there will be some regulatory review of the merger. Where that comes from in the government is not clear yet. But I think, in general, the President believes that mergers that enhance choice for consumers, that enhance the competitiveness of American companies and our economy are good. Those that act in the opposite direction, that restrict consumers' choice are not positive for our country.

And as far as trying to make some judgment on that, in this case I think it's impossible at this point to do that. But, obviously, there will be some regulatory review.

Q Joe, would you expect the President to step up his democratic fundraising this year? There was a story in the paper the other day that said some democrats think he's divided his fundraising efforts too much and he needs to do more for the democrats.

MR. LOCKHART: The one thing about that part of the schedule is while we can turn virtually on a dime onto other things, because of the planning that goes into putting a fundraiser together takes some time -- you're talking two or three months lead time is the norm. So we've had a plan all along to look at last year as a time when we could focus primarily on trying to help the committees -- whether it be the DCCC, the DSCC and also the DNC, but to turn a lot of attention this year to trying to help the DNC have the resources to help democrats around the country.

We have a good bit of time. I don't think at the end of this year, when the year is over people will make the charge that the President wasn't working hard enough for Democrats. He most certainly will. In fact, a criticism traditionally has come from the other side that too much time is spent on that. I think you'll find that there's the right balance here between the many important jobs he has here and between trying to balance his work on the Middle East peace process with all the domestic work he's doing and some other international issues to take up his time.

As far as those who think that his attention is divided, I think those people underestimate the President, underestimate his ability to motivate Democrats around this country and generally, are the kind of people who say things without their names on them and I don't take all that seriously.

Q Joe, speaking of motivating Democrats, what was the reason why Ambassador Holbrooke took the unprecedented step of giving up the floor of the presidency of the U.N. Security Council to Vice President Gore for 40 minutes on Monday?

MR. LOCKHART: I think to showcase the excellent skills the Vice President brings to the office and to highlight the very important policy efforts this administration is taking on Africa and AIDS.

Q In regards to the new proposal on Colombia, Secretary Albright said yesterday that one of the reasons the President wants to spend so much money there is because he considers the national security interests of the United States and to protect American children. Can we expect any new money to be spent here on the same type of problems on drugs in inner cities?

MR. LOCKHART: Well, if you look at the budget, as far as our national drug strategy that General McCaffrey has laid out and so well-executed over the last few years, the interdiction money is small compared to the money that we have been spending to fight demand.

I mean, this isn't an either-or battle for our team here. And we have done enormous amounts on trying to fight the demand part of this. It's hard to turn the television or the radio on and not see some of the advertisements they've done, as well as a number of other efforts. So this is a multipronged strategy which -- the interdiction which we had yesterday, is just one part of.

Q Is one of the reasons they want to commit so much money because they don't feel it's working enough, or working as well as you'd like to hear?

MR. LOCKHART: No, I think it's -- you know, obviously, you attack a problem every way you can. And the problem of drugs in this country is real. We have been fighting both on the domestic and at the source. Obviously, with the new plan put forward by President Pastrana, we have a way of really going after the source of many of the drugs there, and hopefully replicating success we've had in other countries in the region.

So I don't think it's -- I hesitate to say that we look at this as an either-or, and one is a reaction to one part of the strategy not working.

Q Just a follow up to the earlier question. Should we expect more appearances by the Vice President at the United Nations?

MR. LOCKHART: That would be a good question to ask the Vice President.

Q One other question on the drug strategy. I mean, isn't this really a large part of this a counter-insurgency program under the moniker of an antidrug program?

MR. LOCKHART: No. I think we addressed that --

Q Well, tell me how is it not.

MR. LOCKHART: We addressed that very forthrightly yesterday. This is going after the source problem. This is going after with some economic assistance, an alternative economy strategy. So there's a lot of parts to this. And I don't accept the critique of this that it's somehow a counter-insurgency program.

Q One of the things is talked about is that the President is committed to the peace process down in Colombia, yet it has been said that giving the money to the Colombian government might hurt that peace process. If that's the case, is the President still willing to commit this amount of money?

MR. LOCKHART: I'm not sure that I'd accept -- I certainly don't accept the premise of that. I think President Pastrana has laid out a four-part strategy, part of which is promoting peace. And we have agreed in very real terms, and with this assistance package, to assist in that program where it can help. So we believe that President Pastrana is on the right track as far as promoting peace in the country and we're committed to helping in that process, as far as our efforts and counter-drug efforts.

Q But isn't it true, Joe, that if you get him in a position where he has a couple of good wins against the rebels under his belt, he's in a better negotiating position?

MR. LOCKHART: Well, obviously, if you're interested in doing a story on the peace process down there, that's one thing. But we're interested in counter-narcotics.

Q But doesn't it all kind of go together?

MR. LOCKHART: Well, he has a strategy that he believes makes sense for bringing -- for addressing the drug problem. We have an interest in helping them do that, because of our own national security interest. Part of that process is he wants to bring peace to the country. Now, where we can help, we will help. There are areas that we are not going to get involved in; but there are certainly areas that we believe are in our national security interest where we can appropriately help, and we will do that.

Q Joe, has the First Family finished unpacking in their Chappaqua house, or is that why the President is going up there again today?

MR. LOCKHART: Listen, the President is going up there because he's got a full schedule in New York tomorrow. As you all know, he's going to spend the morning in Brooklyn doing some things that Gene Sperling was talking about, as far as the New Market strategy. Many of you have been on the trips with him and you know how important that is.

He'll go in the afternoon to a conference that he's now attended -- I think this is the third year running -- the Wall Street conference that is very important to him, that Jesse Jackson has organized. He'll then attend a reception for that. So he's got a full day and he's got a DNC event tomorrow night. So he's got a very full day in New York, and one of the, I guess, the benefits of the house now is that after a very full day in New York he can actually go to his own home instead of taking up two floors in some very expensive hotel.

Mark, given your sense of taxpayers' dollars and how they should be protected -- (laughter) -- I would probably think that this would be a positive thing. But, listen, I know that there is a temptation on your part to look at the house and make it mean something that it isn't. I mean, this is a place where they will make a home. I think the First Lady will spend a lot of time there, given what she is doing for the year, but for the President, this is a place in the future.

If you look at the schedule for tomorrow and all of the things, going from the crack of dawn until the end of dawn, I think you would be missing the story here if you focus on unpacking boxes. But to answer your question, no, the boxes aren't all unpacked yet.

THE PRESS: Thank you.

END 12:50 P.M. EST