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Office of the Press Secretary

For Immediate Release March 31, 2000
                           PRESS BRIEFING BY
                              JAKE SIEWERT

                 The James S. Brady Press Briefing Room

11:20 A.M. EST

MR. SIEWERT: Your questions.

Q Jake, just how angry is the President at the Vice President for breaking with the administration on Elian Gonzalez?

MR. SIEWERT: I don't think the President is angry at all. The Vice President's office let us know that they were going to make this decision. We've said for some time now that the President and the Vice President would occasionally differ on issues, particularly as the Vice President makes his views known as he begins to run for the presidency himself, and that's to be expected.

Q You say let us know. Did he actually talk to the President himself?

MR. SIEWERT: No, his office spoke to the Chief of Staff's office, and we let the President know.

Q Does that difference of opinion make it more difficult for the White House and for Janet Reno to hold their ground?

MR. SIEWERT: I don't think so. This case is before the courts and there's a legal process underway, as the President said. And as that process plays out, I think everyone will respect the law and make sure that the law is enforced.

Q How far does the President think this legal process should go? The family basically has -- the family here -- that they should be allowed to appeal this from now on. Does the President think the next level of appeal on the judgment, saying the INS can move forward, should be the last stage?

MR. SIEWERT: I don't know that we have a particular view on that. I mean, as I understand it, it's before a court right now. That court will make a decision and we'll see what legal action all the parties take at that point. But the father has volunteered to come here, see the legal process through to its conclusion. We're working with the father on that. We think that can contribute to a successful resolution of the case. And that's where we are. But I'm not making any judgments about what various parties may or not do in the legal process.

Q No, no, but what I'm trying to figure out is the Attorney General seems to have a clear position which is that if the decision of the last court is upheld by the appeals court, then they would turn him over to his father. Is that the President's position?

MR. SIEWERT: I think actually the Attorney General said that she is going to try to do everything she can to reunite the father with the son as soon as possible, particularly if the father comes to the United States, as he's indicated, before that. And we think that's a reasonable -- absolutely reasonable position and she's actually pledged to try to reunite the father with the son if the father does come, and that's exactly what the negotiations that are underway in Miami are all about.

Q So the President does, in fact, embrace the deadline that the Attorney General has set for next Tuesday?

MR. SIEWERT: I think the President trusts the Attorney General and INS to handle this case appropriately. They're trying to do their best to reunite the father with the son, and we'll see how the legal process goes.

Q Jake, remind us if you will what the President has said about naturalization legislation. If it reaches his desk, would he sign it?

MR. SIEWERT: We have said that we don't think that any change in legislation is necessary. The President has said that, and Joe has said that a number of times from this podium. We think that the law is pretty clear in this case and it should be carried out.

Q How has this kid become, from the President to the Vice President to Governor Bush to Congress -- how has he become such a political football?

MR. SIEWERT: Well, I think that's for others to judge. I'm not a social critic or a media critic here. I'm just telling you that the President has done his best to keep this out of the political sphere. The law is pretty clear here and he thinks the law should be carried out. He trusts the INS and the Department of Justice to carry out the law and it couldn't have been clearer in the press conference Wednesday on how he thinks this should proceed.

Q But, Jake, my question -- the President keeps saying let's keep it out of politics; he's sort of indicated the Republicans are making a political issue out of this. Doesn't the Vice President now do the same thing?

MR. SIEWERT: The Vice President made a judgment that he thinks there should be a change in the law. We disagree with that. But we've said for a long time now that he will have different points of view on different issues and this is one of those instances.

Q But he's not contributing to making this a political football?

MR. SIEWERT: I think he wants a change in the law. That's a legitimate position. It's not one we happen to share.

Q But the case didn't begin yesterday with the Vice President's statement. The President at his news conference said he thought we should abide by the law and the politicians should stay out of it. And the very next day, his Vice President said the law's not good enough and interjected himself into the political debate. Is that helpful in such a volatile situation?

MR. SIEWERT: I wouldn't agree with the characterization of all those facts, but the bottom line is, the President thinks the law is pretty clear here. The Attorney General and the INS and the State Department are all working to carry out that law, and we're going to support them as they do that.

Q Is the President confident the Vice President's position was not motivated in any way by politics?

MR. SIEWERT: The Vice President said that he advocated a change in policy, heartfelt, and I haven't discussed that with the President, but I have no reason to second-guess that.

Q Jake, it's not clear from what you said whether the President would or would not sign the naturalization bill if it gets here.

MR. SIEWERT: We believe that it unnecessary and, frankly, there is a lot of opposition to that bill in Congress. They've been kicking around up there for a couple of months and we haven't seen any action on it. So we'll see what happens.

Q So, has the President expressed any feelings, one way or the other, about the Vice President's actions?

MR. SIEWERT: Not that I'm aware of. I mean, he was told about it yesterday and --

Q He didn't erupt or anything?

MR. SIEWERT: No, he did not.

Q Jake, I'm still unclear on one thing. The Vice President and a number of members of Congress who are pushing this bill clearly want this case to go to family court in Florida. Is that what the President thinks is the appropriate process here?

MR. SIEWERT: No, I mean, we've been clear. The case is in federal court. If you remember, the family actually put it in federal court, and the district court's made a judgment and it's under appeal, and that's appropriate. The President thinks that that appeal should be played out. That's the nature of the legal process, and we'll wait and see how the appeal process plays out. The law is fairly clear here and we've made our views known on where the law should be.

Q Well, and once that appeal has been adjudicated, once a decision is made, the President was saying that's the end of the process. Then people should abide by the court's decision, right?

MR. SIEWERT: Well, we should abide by the law. And the law says that this belongs in the federal court. The INS has made a decision that the father speaks for the son. They're trying to make an effort to reunite the father with the son until this legal process is played out.

Q Jake, does the White House have any problem with the large delegation President Castro wants to accompany Elian to the United States?

SIEWERT: I saw those comments. I know the State Department has promised to expedite the visas of the immediate family. I haven't heard what they have said about a larger group, but you would have to check with them on that. We don't comment on individual visa applications, but I have seen that the State Department indicated that it would expedite the visa requests if they come in to the immediate family.

Q But, Jake, as a general rule, does the government think it's advisable in a case like this to import a cheering section for one side? (Laughter.)

MR. SIEWERT: We don't have a view on that. The State Department makes judgments about visas, and they will make those judgments.

Q When it comes to loyalty or just loyalty to the administration, does the President feel that this is in a different period now? The Vice President is a full-fledged presidential candidate in the heat of the race and, therefore, the rules of loyalty that apply earlier in an administration don't apply now?

MR. SIEWERT: I've never put that question to him, specifically. I mean, the Vice President's been a tremendously loyal friend to the President throughout this administration. He's stuck with him through some political battles, and the President fully appreciates the support that the Vice President's shown him over time, and thinks it's understandable that he will have differing points of view from time to time as he runs for president on his own.

Q Jake, Governor Bush has called on the Vice President to lobby the administration to change its position. Has that happened? Has the Vice President tried to get the President to change his mind, or other people --

MR. SIEWERT: Not that I'm aware of.

Q If he tried to, would he have any success at all?

MR. SIEWERT: Sounds like a hypothetical question.

Q You learn fast. (Laughter.)

Q The law is clear. I want to be clear on what you think is clear. (Laughter.) When you say the law is clear, what do you mean?

MR. SIEWERT: The INS has interpreted the immigration law, which says that the father speaks for the son. If you want a natural interpretation of that law, you may want to go to them. But we've had a hearing on this, the district court's ruled, it's in appeal, and until that appeal is worked out, I don't think that there is anything I can say that is all that helpful.

Q Jake, is there a possibility the President would change his view of the law, come around to the Vice President's approach?

MR. SIEWERT: I mean, you had an opportunity to ask him a number of questions on this Wednesday, and he was very clear. He thinks the law is quite clear, that the Attorney General and the INS have interpreted it correctly, and that we should all respect the decision that the court makes. But right now it's in the hands of judges, and judges will render a decision, and he expects everyone to abide by that decision.

Q Do you really need to have the father in the United States --

Q So Gore is out on his own, Jake?

MR. SIEWERT: No, he's asking for a change in the law, and that's something that some members of the Senate have also requested. It's perfectly understandable that people have a different point of view; it just does not happen to be the President's.

Q One of the arguments for allowing the father to spend some time here and not imposing strict deadlines is to allow the father to spend some time on American soil and make a decision that some believe would be free of any political pressure at home. Does the President support any sort of extended period to allow the father in America to evaluate what's best for his son?

MR. SIEWERT: I think the President thinks that bringing the father here would help contribute to a successful resolution to the case, and the father has indicated that he's willing to wait for the legal process to play out to the end. And the President thinks that's appropriate and that we ought to take some efforts as are underway now to reunite the father with the son, and that's all for the good. But I don't know whether it's helpful for me to get into how long he should stay here. There is a legal process underway. The father has indicated that he wants to --

Q The question is, is he making a free decision? I mean, it's his decision all along that he wants his son back with him. Is that being made freely, and can he make a free decision about what's best for his son if he's in America?

MR. SIEWERT: I don't have any reason to think that the father isn't speaking -- saying what he believes, and if he wants to come to America, see his son and wait for the legal process to play out, we think that's absolutely appropriate.

Q When he gets here, Jake, what happens? If he wants to take custody of his son right away, is that the administration's position?

MR. SIEWERT: That's a matter we're trying -- the INS is trying to work through that issue now with the relatives, and those discussions will begin again next week. And obviously we think it would help contribute to a successful resolution to the case to have the father spend some time with the son while the legal process is brought to a conclusion.

Q Is it felt that the administration believes that the father is the proper custodian for the son?

MR. SIEWERT: We have made a judgment that the father speaks for the son and the INS is working hard to reunite them.

Q Have there been any contacts between the White House and the Mayor of Miami, Dade County and a lot of mayors in southern Florida after the statement they made?

MR. SIEWERT: I don't know. I'll check. I know we've been in regular consultation with some of the local authorities down there. And actually, I think most of the statements I saw in the paper today from some of the local authorities in south Florida said that they expected the citizens to abide by the law and we welcome those statements.

Q Has he spoken with the Mayor of Miami since the press conference? Because he said he was a good friend of the Mayor's.

MR. SIEWERT: I don't know. I'll check.

Q Jake, you said that the father should spend some time with the son. Who should have the son while the court process is going on?

MR. SIEWERT: I think the INS has made a judgment that the father speaks for the son and that the father has said he wants to come to America to be reunited with the son, and that's something that the INS is discussing now with the relatives. But they've made the judgment and the President supports that, that the father should spend time with the son until this process is played out. But that's something that's being discussed right now with the relatives in Florida. That discussion will get back underway on Sunday.

Q Jake, when did the Vice President's office let you all know what he was going to do?

MR. SIEWERT: Yesterday morning.

Q Jake, the President had an interview, I believe, with the noted journalist, Leonardo DiCaprio, today. Can you tell us what transpired there and how the White House decided that that was the appropriate venue to talk about Earth Day?

MR. SIEWERT: The President has not had that interview, but I think there's something on the schedule for later this afternoon. The President will discuss his policy on climate change and some of the efforts we've made at the White House to be more environmental friendly in our facility here with ABC. They have a prime-time special on this that will air on Earth Day. And you can all watch it then.

Q Can I ask about the census, Jake? Tomorrow is the deadline. What do you think of all these suggestions, up to and including George W. Bush, that people shouldn't bother to fill out the forms if they don't like the questions?

MR. SIEWERT: Well, I think it's somewhat a disturbing signal for elected officials to suggest that United States citizens shouldn't fill out the census. This is something that's in the Constitution. The Congress has had a lot of time to work and consult on the actual form, two years to actually work on the form. They've weighed in when they wanted to weigh in in the past. They objected to the dropping of one question. So they've known about these questions for some time now. So a lot of these complaints now ring a little hollow. It's also ironic that a party that fought efforts to do more scientific sampling tooth and nail is now urging some members of the public not to fill out their forms.

Q -- not to put words in your mouth, election-year hypocrisy?

MR. SIEWERT: Well, I'll let the commentators decide what it all means. But, look, it's understandable that people could be concerned about putting some private information on this form. But that's why we have very strict provisions in place, to protect the privacy of that information. Census officials are forbidden from sharing that information with other people. There are strict criminal penalties for people who do share that information. And as I said, the questions themselves are mandated by law. So if Congress has a complaint, it's with their own actions.

Q Would that be a criminal violation of the Privacy Act?

MR. SIEWERT: I don't know. You'll have to check on the actual statute.

Q Any reaction to the developments on China-WTO over in Europe -- the EU?

MR. SIEWERT: Oh, the EU talks. No. I mean, this is obviously -- from our own experience, this can be a complicated and difficult process to reach an agreement. But we certainly spent a lot of time with the Chinese government working out the details of our agreement with them. We think we got a terrific deal, and we hope that those negotiations are brought to a conclusion at some point. But in the meantime, we're focused more on ensuring that we can do what is necessary here in Congress to allow China to accede to the WTO.

Q Does it make your job tougher? If the Europeans at this point had gone along and we were sort of the only ones out there who hadn't done it yet --

MR. SIEWERT: Well, I don't know about that. I think we're working with members of Congress right now to set a date for the vote. We think we're making some progress on that and that's been the focus of our attention. We've made clear to members of Congress there's been some misunderstandings about this, but the benefits that we negotiated with Beijing are locked in. Nothing Europe does, or nothing any other country does, can weaken the deal that Charlene Barshefsky and Gene Sperling reached with the Chinese government. So we know what the deal is right now, today, and we know that unless we act, that we won't get the benefits of that deal, so we're going to move forward.

Q To follow up on kind of a loose end about this so-called zip disk that the White House is in possession of, yesterday it was learned through testimony from Beth Nolan that indeed they have not been able to read all of the contents of this zip disk, that they went back and made a -- F-drive and have not yet been able to read all of the information on that copy that they've made. Yet the White House has made a representation, and the President has made a representation, that everything in that zip disk had already been previously released. If you can't read the contents of the zip disk, some parts of it, how can you make that representation?

MR. SIEWERT: You're testing the limits of my knowledge on that particular -- the facts of that particular case. I know our counsel, Beth Nolan, was on the Hill, testified extensively on this, and we'll try to get an answer to the specific question for you.

Q Do you know why some parts of this zip disk cannot be read? Is there any answer to that?

MR. SIEWERT: No, and probably if I studied it for weeks I wouldn't know. I'm not that technically literate.

Q Now that the supplemental aid package has been approved by the House, aid to Colombia, Kosovo, the Pentagon, what are the chances in the Senate that the White House sees now? Because it seems that the opposition from Trent Lott and Don Nickles -- they're the number two guys in the Republican --

MR. SIEWERT: They're number one and number two guys. Well, we're glad that the House acted on this and we hope that we can urge -- the President urged the Senate to act last night in the written statement that we put out, and we'll obviously be consulting with the Senate. We want to move forward. Delaying on this would only complicate our efforts to help Colombia in its counternarcotics efforts. It would only delay our efforts to bring peace and stability in Kosovo; only delay our efforts to get some funds in the hands of victims of Hurricane Floyd; and also delay our efforts to deal with the energy crisis. So we hope they move quickly.

Q Jake, on the census, you said that members of Congress had objected to the dropping of one question. What was that question and who objected to it?

MR. SIEWERT: I think there was a Senate resolution that objected to dropping a question about marriage.

Q About whether one is married?

MR. SIEWERT: I don't know the actual question, but they felt that somehow -- the point is simply that they had ample opportunity to weigh in. They even voted on some resolutions about the questionnaire, so they knew what was in the questionnaire.

Week ahead?

Q You bet.

MR. SIEWERT: Nothing for PJ? He's here, he's back.

Q Maybe you could disagree with -- (laughter.)

MR. SIEWERT: PJ has his own point of view.

Q What do you think about Elian Gonzalez? (Laughter.)

MR. SIEWERT: The President's weekly radio address will be broadcast Saturday morning, 10:06 a.m. It will be taped today. We'll try to get a transcript for you.

Q Subject?

MR. SIEWERT: The census. No public events on the schedule for tomorrow. On Sunday, the President will depart to Las Vegas, Nevada, at 8:00 a.m. for fundraising. He will attend a DNC brunch at a private residence, and later attend a Women's Leadership Forum reception at another private residence. Later that evening he will travel to San Jose, California, for a DCCC fundraiser at a private residence in Stanford. Spend the night in San Jose.

On Monday, the President will make remarks at a Democratic Leadership Conference at the Tech Museum of Innovation in San Jose, California. I expect those remarks will focus on the new economy and some of our efforts to strengthen our economy through opening of various trade barriers around the world, particularly those in China.

The President then returns to Andrews, arrives that evening. No further events on the schedule.

On Tuesday, he'll meet with the President of Yemen, then participate in a digital divide event at the White House. He'll attend a fundraising reception for the Leahy for Senate campaign, and a DNC reception that evening.

On Wednesday, we have an economic summit at the White House in the East Room. We'll try to make as much of that open to the press as possible. There's a number of different panels; it goes on for some time. Chairman Greenspan will participate in a panel that afternoon, will cover topics like productivity in the new economy, the impact of the Internet on the new economy, how the new economy can transform government and society, and some global issues.

Q Will Gene brief?

MR. SIEWERT: If you're lucky. (Laughter.)

Q Will the President attend the whole thing?

MR. SIEWERT: I think he will attend the whole thing. There are some breakout sessions that he may not be involved in. But he will be chairing the various panels.

Q Is he going to be in the one where Greenspan is?

MR. SIEWERT: Yes. Yes. And he will spend the night Wednesday evening, April 5th, in Chappaqua.

On Thursday, there are no scheduled events on the President's schedule. And on Friday, he will participate in a Women's Health Day event Friday afternoon. That's it.

Q Have we established that there's no possibility of seeing him today?

MR. SIEWERT: Unless you're on the golf course, I think that's right.

Q Jake, do you have any details about the New Markets tour?

MR. SIEWERT: We're going to make those available next week. We're still working through some of the details of that in the schedule. But I expect we'll spend two days talking about the digital divide and what we can do to help bring technology to some areas of America that have been left behind.

Q -- Greenspan's address, what he's going to say?

MR. SIEWERT: No, I think he -- no.

Q Do you know where that New Markets trip is going to go?

MR. SIEWERT: Not yet. Not yet. But if you check with me afterwards, I'll give you some idea of some of the things we're considering.

Q So in this panel, will the President take the opportunity to give Greenspan some suggestions as to how he should --

MR. SIEWERT: I doubt it.

Q He's going to be in a listening mode?

Q Thank you.

MR. SIEWERT: Thanks.

END 11:45 A.M. EST