THE WHITE HOUSE
Office of the Press Secretary
PRESS BRIEFING BY JOE LOCKHART The James S. Brady Press Briefing Room
2:55 P.M. EDT
Q No one is here.
Q Don't everyone ask a question at once.
MR. LOCKHART: Well, if frequent flyer miles hasn't worked, we're going to start giving away blenders. (Laughter.) Starting tomorrow, though, so all of you who need a new blender, you've got to be here tomorrow. (Laughter.)
Well, today, why don't we start in the back? Let me just tell you, I mentioned this morning that the President had a meeting at 9:30 a.m. this morning, as we were gaggling, with his national security team. They talked about the national security implications of the PNTR vote that's coming up in May in the House, and discussed the best way to make that case to individual members of Congress.
As the President's statement indicates that we've just released, he believes that bringing China into the WTO will entwine China in the global economy, making it more interdependent with the rest of the world. It will bring about an information revolution, with knowledge and freedom of thought brought to millions and hundreds of millions of Chinese. It will help accelerate the dismantling of China's state-owned enterprises. These are all things that we believe would be positive developments as far as our own national security.
On the negative side, we also believe that a no vote would send the wrong signal to China. The President believes that because the economic benefits to us are so clear, a no vote would be seen by China as a rejection of the policy of engaging with China and as a turn away from cooperation to confrontation. We also believe, as the statement indicates, that a no vote would undercut the reform-minded leaders who signed this agreement with us, and strengthen those who have opposed reform.
There are a number of other points made here in the statement. I will leave it at that, and take your questions.
Q On those points, it's pretty strong language -- "confrontation" and "adversary," "tensions in the Taiwan Straits." Where do you come to -- what prompts this conclusion? Is this -- the Chinese government has told you that this would be their reaction?
MR. LOCKHART: No. This is our assessment, based on our encounters and workings with the Chinese government. We believe that they have taken a step forward in agreeing to the economic concessions that they've made to accede into WTO. They've taken a step towards further independence for the rest of the world. And we believe all that is very much in our interests, both our economic security and our national security.
Q Joe, the President last week in Silicon Valley took a step toward taking his case to the public on this, on the technology side. Are there parallel plans coming out of this meeting to sell the national security side of this story to the public?
MR. LOCKHART: Well, I think the President had the leadership of our national security team in with him this morning, and they will be up on the Hill. They're up on the Hill, they deal with members of Congress on a regular basis. And they will make this argument.
Q Joe, I know you're going to say you've been through this before, but if all --
MR. LOCKHART: I've been through this before. (Laughter.)
Q -- if all these benefits would result from more trade with China, why wouldn't those benefits result from more trade with Cuba?
MR. LOCKHART: We've been through this before. (Laughter.)
Q Yes, I knew you'd say that.
MR. LOCKHART: Yes.
Q Since you --
MR. LOCKHART: Saved by Lester.
Q That's a first.
MR. LOCKHART: And a last, I hope.
Q Since you and the President were very gracious to Jim Brady in dedicating this press room to him, I'm wondering if the White House will do anything to ask Judge Green not to permit the unsupervised daytime leaves of patient Hinckley, as recommended by officials at St. Elizabeth's Hospital?
MR. LOCKHART: I don't expect the White House to try to intervene in that case.
Q Can I ask you also, since the proposal for Israel to give up all of the Golan Heights to Syria and relocate all the Jews who live there, how does the President differentiate this from ethnic cleansing?
MR. LOCKHART: That question is so ridiculous I'll pass on it.
Q Why is it ridiculous? Do you know if any Jews are going to be allowed to live up there?
MR. LOCKHART: It is an absurd notion, Lester, and -- just try to keep it on a serious tone here. I'm a very serious guy.
Q Joe, in Peru there are charges of election fraud by Fujimori. What's your reaction to that? Is there any way to guarantee the legitimacy of the outcome?
MR. LOCKHART: There were some reports of irregularities. There were certainly some steps taken in advance of the election, as I said yesterday, that were done to the detriment of the opposition parties running. The government approved, took some steps toward the end of -- near the election date to try to rectify that situation. We certainly expect that there will be a runoff. We have confidence in the quick count that was done that showed the need for a runoff, and it's very, very important as far as the legitimacies of these elections that the international community and the people of Peru have faith in the process.
As I said yesterday, we expect there will be a runoff, and I think serious questions will be raised if the vote count indicated something otherwise.
Q Congressman Archer yesterday made comments that legislation that would go in tandem with China PNTR legislation runs the risk of alienating some Republicans and might not be helpful. Apparently, Majority Leader Armey made some similar comments this morning. Is that a setback for efforts to win over Democrats to vote for --
MR. LOCKHART: I don't think so. I think we'll just have to look what people have in mind. We think the WTO agreement that was negotiated stands on its own, and we don't support anything that sets any conditions on it. If there are steps that some members want to come forward with that can broaden support for the WTO agreement and for permanent normal trading relations, that would be something that we would look at, and if it broadens support we could support. But the agreement in and of itself stands on its own and shouldn't be conditioned.
Q But what about -- you must have looked at Sander Levin's proposal, which isn't a condition, but it would create this commission where Congress can continue to review China's performance -- what do you think about that?
MR. LOCKHART: You can look at review, look at compliance things. I don't know that we have come down one way or the other on that particular idea. Again, the overall philosophy is the agreement stands on its own, but if we can come up with a formula that broadens rather than narrows the support for it, then that's fine.
Q You don't think that you need to have something like that to get the Democratic votes to pass this?
MR. LOCKHART: We don't think that -- what's important is we don't want anything that conditions the agreement we've made. We're looking at ways to broaden support for the agreement. We'll continue to do that. And that's the sort of operating philosophy.
Q Project Exile passed in the House by a pretty big margin, including a lot of Democratic votes. What's the White House reaction?
MR. LOCKHART: Well, the Democrats saw a political trap and decided not to fall for it. But let me tell you a couple things about the bill that Representative McCollum put on the floor. In reality, what it is, is a cruel political trick on the American public. Using parliamentary rules, they have stopped any consideration of the gun safety legislation. They've stopped any consideration of the President's enforcement package.
Let's talk about the differences between the two packages. The President's package is $280 million, will put 1,000 new prosecutors on courtrooms, prosecuting gun criminals; will put 500 more ATF agents out on the street going after people who break the law.
The McCollum package will spend $10 million next year, but 44 states are legally barred from participating in it. Only six states can participate in this program. So here is what they've done, using the majority rules. They've said, we're not even going to consider gun safety legislation. We're not even going to have a conference meeting, even though the House instructed the conferees to meet. But they can't bring anything up that's binding. Then, they wouldn't consider the President's proposal that will put prosecutors in the courtroom, ATF agents on the street and actually have an impact.
Instead, they're playing politics. They feel like they're vulnerable on this, they've got to do something, but they pass a piece of legislation, put it on the floor as their answer that 44 out of 50 states can't participate in. Well, how are kids in those 44 states supposed to feel when they've seen the Republican alternative. I think they will think it's a joke.
Q Why can't they participate? Is it because they don't have the current programs mandated by Congress?
MR. LOCKHART: No, they don't have the sentencing rules that the legislation requires.
Q But if they come into conformity, Joe, they will be able to participate.
MR. LOCKHART: Well, 44 states have to go and pass different legislation. We can get enforcement money, people in the courts, people on the streets right now, with the Democratic approach. There is absolutely no likelihood that, tomorrow 44 states are going to go into their legislatures and pass a law to come into compliance with this.
Q But this is the way you get seatbelt safety laws accepted by the states as well, if you give them the incentive to do so.
MR. LOCKHART: Well --
Q You passed -- supported law that requires the states to do something in order to get some kind of --
MR. LOCKHART: Well, in this case, I don't even think they've made the argument that somehow -- that this is incentives to the states to do something. We ought to pass -- there is a bill up there that does a lot for enforcement, the Conyers bill. But they won't even allow that to come up. There's just no time; we can't vote on that. All they can do is bring this up -- and I think this bill should be taken for what it is.
Q The President said today that the Congress should follow the lead of Maryland. But as I understand it, in reading very carefully what the Maryland law says, it includes many of the things that Project Exile asks for. So in a way, haven't they followed the lead of Maryland?
MR. LOCKHART: Listen, Project Exile was the idea of a U.S. attorney appointed by the President in Richmond, Virginia. There's a little bit of a misnomer here that the NRA likes to perpetrate, and let me clear it up, that somehow this was their idea and their program. Let me tell you what their participation was: they provided some of the money for the billboards for the program.
We have worked with states. This is an idea that Janet Reno, the Attorney General, has really pushed, because she comes from the position of a local prosecutor. Project Exile started with our U.S. attorney down in Richmond. It has been replicated in other cities around the country. Boston has another program that takes a slightly different approach, Operation Cease-Fire, where our U.S. attorney -- these are programs that we support.
It's one of the reasons why enforcement is up in this country. We support it, but we have to give the resources. There is not in this bill that the Republicans put forward a dime to put a federal prosecutor in court. You can't -- a prosecutor can only prosecute so many cases in a day. You have to give them the resources, you have to put more people out there.
Q But does the President back tougher minimum sentences for gun violations?
MR. LOCKHART: Under this President, the people who commit gun crimes -- sentences have gone up two years. On a federal level, sentences have been increased. On the state level, that's something that the states have to work through.
Q Joe, given the fact that the President paid the $90,000 fine and did not appeal Judge Wright's finding that he gave false, misleading and evasive answers under oath, and given Mr. Ray's statement yesterday that no person is above the law, even the President of the United States, can you assure us the President will not pardon himself on or before January 20th?
MR. LOCKHART: Yes.
Q You can give us that assurance?
MR. LOCKHART: I can.
Q Good. I was told by a high-ranking Army officer that it was wrong to say that the Army was covering up in the General Claudia Kennedy case because -- quote -- "we were simply trying to protect their privacy." Would you as the President's spokesman, agree with that, and are you sorry that the privacy rights of Kathleen Willey --
MR. LOCKHART: Is that whole page a list?
Q -- and Linda Tripp were violated?
MR. LOCKHART: Because you could just submit it to me and it would be a lot easier for me to give you --
Q No, no, I'd just like to get an answer.
MR. LOCKHART: What's the question?
Q The question is, are you -- as the President, would you agree that they were just trying to protect their privacy? And why did you not protect the privacy of Kathleen Willey and Linda Tripp?
MR. LOCKHART: Yes and no, or no and yes, whichever works.
Q I see.
Q Could you walk us through what's going to happen tonight with the President and the Prime Minister?
MR. LOCKHART: Yes. He'll get here about 6:15 p.m. They'll walk through the colonnade, they'll meet in the Oval. It's scheduled for an hour. I wouldn't expect it to go any shorter than that, it might go longer. When the meeting is over, we'll have someone come down here to provide a readout.
Q And the only picture is the colonnade?
MR. LOCKHART: Yes.
Q Do you expect him to stop and say something?
MR. LOCKHART: We'll see. I don't really have any expectation. But you'll certainly be there.
Q Would you expect the Prime Minister to go to the stakeout afterwards?
MR. LOCKHART: I think given the time of day it is in the region, it's probably not likely. I think he's making himself available at other times during the day, and --
MR. CROWLEY: I think he's also actually departing the city fairly quickly to go back.
Q And the readout will be on background?
MR. LOCKHART: Yes.
Q At the podium?
Q We're talking about 7:30 p.m.-8:00 p.m.?
MR. LOCKHART: Yes, that would be my guess.
Q Are they just going to discuss -- what are they going to discuss? There's no breakthrough expected, is there?
MR. LOCKHART: No, but, I mean, these are difficult negotiations and discussions, and it's important that from time to time they meet face to face to take stock and look at ways that we can ensure that the process stays on track. I think there's a number of issues that, in addition to discussing the real work that's been going on at the expert level on the Palestinian-Israeli track -- they haven't had a chance to meet face-to-face since the Assad meeting; my guess is they'll have some discussion of that. I also guess that with the deadline set for the withdrawal from Lebanon, there will be some discussion of that. I think the President finds it quite useful from time to time to bring the parties here or to meet them either in the region or some other location and meet face to face.
Q Will the President bring up the sale of the Falcon airborne radar system?
MR. LOCKHART: Yes, I think we've made our position on that quite clear to the Israelis. I expect the President to raise it this evening.
Q Is it the administration's position that Elian's father is free to stay here if he chose to?
MR. LOCKHART: Free to stay here?
MR. LOCKHART: He would have to follow the normal procedures of someone who wanted to stay here. I haven't heard it suggested --
Q No Cuban who lands on U.S. soil is sent back, so is he -- I mean, I'm just wondering, is it your understanding that if he chose to stay here, he can stay here?
MR. LOCKHART: If he chose to stay here, he would have to follow the normal procedures. I'm not familiar with what they are.
Q Is there anything that you can imagine stopping him from staying here, if he chose to stay here?
Q In other words, if he asked for asylum.
Q Yes. Cubans are routinely granted asylum who ask for it.
MR. LOCKHART: Well, there is a process for doing that, where -- you're asking me a hypothetical about a potential process. The process will work its normal -- will go through the normal procedure.
Q Well, the reason I'm asking -- and your answer is kind of indicative of -- the administration seems to have made absolutely no effort to state publicly that not only do they want the child reunited with the father -- that you've made very clear -- but that the father can choose to live with the child where he wants, and that if he wants to stay here, you will not stand in his way.
MR. LOCKHART: I have no objection to that, as long as the procedure is followed.
Q Okay. There are a lot of people, including Cuban-American members of Congress, who have been saying that there's some kind of a -- that you have given some kind of assurances to the Castro government that he will not stay here.
MR. LOCKHART: Listen, I'm not aware of any assurances on that front. But I am also not going to, for the sake of some -- to make the 4:00 p.m. hourly broadcast more interesting, start speculating on something that hasn't been presented to us.
Q Is the President in any way disturbed by the fact that Elian's father seems to be completely controlled, his movements, his statements? He has done nothing, with the exception of a private meeting with Janet Reno, nothing without the presence of his Cuban handlers, everything that he's done has been in their control?
MR. LOCKHART: I think that most Americans, including the President, believe that the kind of government in Cuba should be changed, and the people should have -- there should be democracy and freedom of speech. I can't speculate in this particular case, but I can tell you that the INS and the Justice Department have made a ruling that the father and son should be reunited, and that's where the President is.
Q Right. But is there any doubt in the President's mind that Elian's father has stated his true feelings about where he wants to live with his son -- not that he wants to be with him, but where he wants to be?
MR. LOCKHART: I just don't know if he's in a position to make a judgment on that.
Q Can I ask you about the article in The Washington Post this morning quoting Mr. Robert Ray who says that -- well, the Post observing that he's hired some new prosecutors and it appears that Mr. Ray is preparing for prosecution of the President after his term of office is over?
MR. LOCKHART: I think my transcript of three and a half weeks ago should reflect my response to that, when I first read it in The New York Times and then watched it the following Sunday on This Week With Sam and Cokie that we so cruelly lampooned in last Thursday night's speech.
Q Do you have any sense of how active that investigation is, based on any kind of recent interview requests or any recent document requests, anything like that?
MR. LOCKHART: I have no idea.
Q Do you think it's inappropriate that he should be making these kinds of plans?
MR. LOCKHART: Listen, I don't know that I'm in a position to provide objective commentary on this, given our history. I think the public will have to make a decision, whether they think -- whether this independent counsel should increase his staff, increase his spending, increase his activity or do the opposite.
Q Have they replied to -- I think it's the April 21st deadline by the Supreme Court of Arkansas, their bar association. He's supposed to respond by then.
MR. LOCKHART: I think it's later in the month, but that would be something that Mr. Kendall can answer.
Q Did the President have any discussion with the Vice President about a potential pardon situation that you're aware of?
MR. LOCKHART: No, not that I'm aware of.
Q Has the Vice President indicated, like Gerry Ford did before the Senate Judiciary Committee, the people would not stand it if I pardoned Nixon -- remember that?
MR. LOCKHART: No, I think I was a little too young.
Q You weren't that young, Joe. (Laughter.)
MR. LOCKHART: I'm getting older by the minute, Lester. (Laughter.)
Q Ford said that he -- the people wouldn't stand for it, and then he went right ahead and did it.
MR. LOCKHART: Why don't we change the subject? This is ridiculous speculation that most of you will ignore, but some of you probably won't, and then I'll pay for it. So --
Q Just based on what Robert Ray was --
MR. LOCKHART: I guess we're going to stay on it.
Q I mean, based on what he was quoted as saying in today's article, is that troublesome when he talks about vindication of the legal theory that anyone needs to be held accountable, even a President?
MR. LOCKHART: I think if there's anybody in this country who doesn't think the President has been held accountable, that would be a surprise to me.
Q It would?
Q What do you mean by that?
Q I think a lot of people don't --
Q How was he held accountable?
MR. LOCKHART: We've certainly gone through all of these issues, and I don't mean anything more by it.
Q Just one more follow-up.
MR. LOCKHART: Sure.
Q There are 246,000 e-mails that weren't available to Ken Starr then. Doesn't that require further investigation by Mr. Ray, now that those documents are going to be made available sometime late this year?
MR. LOCKHART: I'm not familiar enough with what the subject of those e-mails are to make a judgment.
Q Do you know anything about this pipeline safety initiative that Gore put forward today?
MR. LOCKHART: I heard something about it this morning, but I'd have to check. It was mentioned briefly in a meeting; I have to admit I wasn't paying full attention.
Q Congressman Smith has introduced his H1B visa legislation, and he would apply no caps on the number of H1B applicants that could come into the United States for the next three years. What's the administration's position on that?
MR. LOCKHART: I haven't seen the legislation. I think congressman Smith knows well what our view is, that we need to have a balanced approach that reflects both the need for U.S. industry to remain competitive, and from time to time bring skilled workers from other places, and the need to make sure that our workers are trained, and trained adequately and properly to fill many of these high-skill positions.
Q But a balanced approach would mean that a bill that had no caps would be unacceptable, wouldn't it?
MR. LOCKHART: Well, again, this is coming to me from here. I haven't had a chance to look at it. But I would -- I think our approach that calls for a balance, that we've implemented in the past, has worked quite well, and we have no intention of changing that.
Q Can you also -- the meeting this morning on PNTR, the President knows the national security argument. His national security advisors know it. So what did they say to each other this morning?
MR. LOCKHART: They talked about the importance of these arguments, and they talked about what the best way to go up and make the individual members is.
Q Did he indicate to them that they should be more involved, that the Secretary of State, maybe even Shelton, should be more involved, given that that argument has some resonance?
MR. LOCKHART: No, I think that they have been involved, and this was one of a number of sessions he's had, both internally and externally, to make sure we're doing everything we can to make our case.
Q Joe, was there any particular thing that prompted -- as Terry noted, the language in this statement does seem stronger and more focused on national security issues, and the President has talked a lot about this issue. I'm just wondering why this different --
MR. LOCKHART: Oh, I think most of the discussion on this subject to date has focused on the economic benefits. And there's been a preponderance of debate on that subject, with less on national security. The President has given several speeches where he's made this case -- Johns Hopkins; I think he talked a little bit about it out on the West Coast -- so I think these arguments are complimentary. They're both very important and we wanted to make sure that we were making as effectively as we could as we come up to a vote.
We now have a sense of when the vote is going to be, there's sort of a weekly schedule from now through May to continue to make the case, and today was an important meeting as far as making sure the whole team was on the same page and we'll be, in the most effective way possible, making the case to members of Congress.
Q Secretary Cohen was in Israel last week and appealed to the Israeli government not to continue with high-tech military sales to China. Will that come up in today's meeting with Prime Minister Barak?
MR. LOCKHART: Yes, I mentioned it -- the President -- we've raised this on a number of levels, including Secretary Cohen. I expect the President to raise it with Prime Minister Barak this evening.
Q Why does the U.S. have so little leverage on this issue with Israel? I mean, this is a country that we have an incredibly strong and interdependent relationship with and you can't get them to stop sending --
MR. LOCKHART: I don't view it as a situation of leverage. We will make our case -- we have made our case; the President will make it again tonight and we'll see where we go.
Q Joe what impact will that sale have on the prospects for PNTR?
MR. LOCKHART: I don't know that that sale -- that you can draw a direct line between that sale and the PNTR vote. I think our concern, overall, is that we not -- that nothing is done that could have the potential of impacting the military balance in the region.
Q One of the arguments the Israeli government has made is that they competed against Britain and France for this contract that has been in the pipeline since 1996, and they have no assurances that if they drop out, Britain and France won't step in and sell the technology to China anyway. Is there any assurance the U.S. government could give Israel that that won't happen, and does the government consider that a legitimate counterpoint?
MR. LOCKHART: We are making our case on policy grounds to the Israeli government and will continue to do so. We're not in the position to offer anything as far as another government, but we believe that -- and are concerned about this particular sale, as well as a defense relationship, and we will make that case.
Q How long do you think it will be before you are able to arrange for the evacuation of the Golan Heights?
MR. LOCKHART: Pardon?
Q How long do you think it will be before there is this proposed evacuation comes about?
MR. LOCKHART: I really don't know what you're talking about as far as a proposed evacuation, so let's go on.
Q The idea of giving Syria all those billions -- Israel -- and the evacuation of the Golan Heights? You don't know anything about that, Joe?
MR. LOCKHART: You obviously know a lot more about some deal than I do, so we may have to switch places.
Q Thank you, Joe.
MR. LOCKHART: Thank you.
Q Can you check if the President's face to face tomorrow with an NRA official?
MR. LOCKHART: He is not.
Q He is not? Was that at the request of the White House?
MR. LOCKHART: No. I think NBC has put this together. I think they have, again, they have two sessions, although I think I may have heard that the NRA person has pulled out for the second one. I don't know if they have a state person representing in their place.
Q Thank you, Joe.
END 3:20 P.M. EDT