THE WHITE HOUSE
Office of the Press Secretary
PRESS BRIEFING BY JOE LOCKHART The James S. Brady Press Briefing Room
1:26 P.M. EDT
MR. LOCKHART: I have no announcements, so why don't we get right to the questions.
Q Joe, has the President talked to Attorney General Reno at all today about the Elian Gonzalez case?
MR. LOCKHART: No, not that I know of. We got in quite late last night. I don't believe they've spoken today. The President had a chance on the flight back from the Oklahoma City memorial event yesterday to spend about 45 minutes with the Attorney General on Air Force One. He got a briefing on the court ruling that came down yesterday from the 11th Circuit, and a chance to get a situation report directly from the Attorney General on the plane.
Q Joe, is the President pressuring the Attorney General to take action promptly?
MR. LOCKHART: No.
Q Did he asked her to take action promptly?
MR. LOCKHART: I'm not going to get into the details of the meeting. But what I will say is the President believes the Attorney General has moved forward in a deliberate way, which he believes is appropriate, allowing all sides their chance to have their say, both to the Attorney General and in the court of law, and he believes that that is the right way to do this.
Now, we have had the ruling yesterday. The President and the Attorney both firmly believe that there's nothing in this ruling that indicates that the father should not be reunited with the boy. That should be now done in a prompt and orderly way.
Q Joe, is there any reason we shouldn't read this as an escalation of the President's involvement? He has not been on the record, as far as I know, in saying that this needs to be done to move ahead quickly --
MR. LOCKHART: The President has been. He said, I think in a pool spray a week to 10 days ago that this should be prompt and orderly.
Q What's the President's view of the rest of that 11th Circuit court decision?
MR. LOCKHART: I think there are a number of elements to it, and I think they all should be looked at in each piece. There has been some discussion that somehow the court ruled on the asylum issue; they did not. The court did not hear arguments, they did not hear oral arguments, they did not take briefs from either of the parties.
They made some statements about some possibilities, as support for the decision they did make. They chose not to express a view on the question of whether the boy should be with the father or with the Miami relatives. It also made a case, that we agree with and that the boy's father agrees with, that the boy should remain here while this case is being litigated.
So I believe that if you look at this in its entirety, the Miami relatives who had publicly expressed concern that the boy would not stay in the United States should see this, should be reassured, that the father's statements will now be enforced through the court -- and his intentions to have the boy remain here. And I think they should look at this with that reassurance, and move forward in a way that orderly transfers the boy to his father.
Q Joe, the court ruling also said that it was -- or suggested that it was a procedural error for Justice not to have anyone from the government at any point speak to this child, and try to elicit his views on the situation. Does the President agree with that portion of the ruling?
MR. LOCKHART: I'm not going to get into any further detail of this. The court came down and said, they ought to have a hearing on May 11th. Both sides should come prepared to orally argue. They should submit briefs based on the law. Justice and INS will do that. I think Justice and INS are confident in their position, and the way they look at the law here, as far as the father having the sole right to speak for the six-year-old boy. And they will have their day in court.
Q Well, is there any difference in the standoff -- any difference in the U.S. action today in this standoff than there was yesterday?
MR. LOCKHART: Well, I think as far as the relatives are concerned, there's an important difference, which is, the court has ruled that the young boy should stay in this country until this is fully adjudicated. That removes a concern, and they now should move forward and, in conjunction with the Justice Department, allow the boy to be reunited with his father.
Q Joe, does the President have a sense of frustration or urgency, since this has not been resolved at this point? And do you expect him to take a more assertive public role in urging --
MR. LOCKHART: Listen, I think the President has been briefed throughout this process. He'll continue to be briefed by the Attorney General and the appropriate agencies.
Q Joe, you said that the President recognizes that there is a tension between his two goals of having this resolved promptly and orderly.
MR. LOCKHART: Right.
Q First of all, what does he mean? And, secondly, what scenario does he fear most at this point?
MR. LOCKHART: I'm not going to go down the road of speculating about particular parts of this process or scenarios.
Q But wait a second. I'm asking, I think, a fair question which is --
MR. LOCKHART: That may be a fair question, which I'm not going to answer. Next?
Q You've probably answered this a million times, but does the White House favor asylum for the family if they choose to stay in this country?
MR. LOCKHART: For?
Q Juan Miguel Gonzalez and the rest of the --
MR. LOCKHART: I have answered this question, which is if he applied for that, he would be dealt with like any adult who came here.
Q No favorite treatment, no expedited --
MR. LOCKHART: Well, I think it's a pretty straightforward process. If you want to talk -- talk to the INS about how they work all this. But it's a very straightforward process.
Q When you say the relatives now should be reassured and so forth. What if they don't? I mean, is there any other action the President can take?
MR. LOCKHART: Listen, there is no reason in the world, particularly after this ruling, that they now should not come forward and reunite the boy with his father. As far as what can and will be done if they don't, I'm just not going to get into a speculative game here of talking about what could be done or what might be done and what will be done.
Q Why would you expect them come forward? They've already defied the United States government once.
MR. LOCKHART: Well, I think that they made an argument about being very concerned about the boy returning to Cuba before this was fully litigated. And if that argument was made in good faith, they should come forward now. And if that argument was not made in good faith, well, then, the U.S. government will have to deal with that.
Q Joe, you said the President has been briefed throughout this process. Has this been a fairly passive thing for the President, that people tell him what's going on, or does he tell people what he wants to happen? How much of a leadership role has he taken?
MR. LOCKHART: I think the President has remained informed throughout this process, but the process has been spearheaded at the Justice Department, by the Attorney General, and at the INS by Commissioner Meissner.
Q Will the President be meeting with the Prime Minister of Japan next month, and what will be on the agenda for their talks?
MR. LOCKHART: Well, the President will meet with Prime Minister Mori on May 5th. It will be a working visit on the morning of May 5th. I understand that the Prime Minister is trying to get out and visit as many of his G-7 partners as he can in advance of the meeting in Okinawa in July. I expect in addition to our many bilateral, important bilateral issues that define our relationship, I expect there to be discussion of the upcoming G-8 meeting in Okinawa.
Q Joe, when you say the process is being spearheaded by the Attorney General, does that mean that the President is not telling the Attorney General what to do on this matter?
MR. LOCKHART: Listen, the Attorney General is, because of her position at the Justice Department, empowered to move forward with this process. We remain briefed here. The President spoke to the Attorney General over the weekend. He spoke to her last night. He'll continue to do that.
Q Joe, to follow up on that. This is a matter that clearly has implications in a number of arenas of American policy; foreign policy implications because it deals with a Cuban citizen and a government that we have not had good relations with for four decades; domestic implications because it -- you know, you've had the threat, or talk of possible unrest in Miami; and, also, it's obviously a legal and judicial matter. Given that it straddles so many different areas of policy, why shouldn't the President take a larger role in trying to seek a resolution?
MR. LOCKHART: Well, listen I'm just not going to get into a game of trying to define or calibrate for you, or give you a quantitative description of the President's role. I have described it the best way I can, and I'm going to leave it there. This is a matter that is a legal matter, which is being handled at the appropriate legal agencies, the Justice Department and the INS.
Q -- qualitative read on it. I mean, obviously, the Attorney General has been quite clear about the delicacy of this issue. Her personal passions have been on display about this issue. The timing of this is so delicate. Is not the President giving her any advice or any feeling about the handling this --
MR. LOCKHART: I think certainly the President, in his discussions with the Attorney General, has made clear both -- has had a chance to hear on the situation; that he's given her his views on this subject. But I'm just not going to get into those discussions.
Q Do you agree with what members of the White House staff have said on background, that the President wants this over?
MR. LOCKHART: I am not aware of people saying things on background here at the White House. I am also not in a position to run around the building and see who's saying what to who. I am aware of what the President believes and wants. He wants this matter concluded in a way that is both prompt and orderly.
Q Can we expect, Joe, that the Attorney General will come to the President with what decision she plans to take? And will the President be signing off?
MR. LOCKHART: The President has been briefed appropriately throughout the process, and I'm just not going to discuss further what that process is.
Q Is he giving the final go-ahead on the decision, Joe?
MR. LOCKHART: I said the President has been briefed throughout this process, and I'm not going to discuss further the process.
Q Can we get a read on the Medicare meeting this morning?
MR. LOCKHART: Yes. The President's advisors who deal with health care, and particularly Medicare and prescription drugs, spent some time this morning looking at the Republican plan, and came to the conclusion that it falls well short of what the President believes we need, as far as a universal and accessible Medicare -- prescription drug benefit for Medicare beneficiaries.
I think there is some -- as we've seen in many of the budget battles -- some money moving around here that's hard to get your fingers on. But what they're looking at is, while they won't put out a 10-year number, which would give you a true sense of what their prescription drug benefit is, their five-year number is as low as $20 billion.
I think you'll find that if you look at the details -- and that is somewhat unfair, since the details of the Republican prescription drug plan is not a bill; it's not a long study; it's a two-page list of talking points -- but even in discerning what you can get from that, it is not something that will be affordable for many Medicare beneficiaries, many seniors in America. And it's not something that will be workable, based on the fact that it relies very much on a private-sector buy-in that private sector representatives have said they're not interested in participating in.
So I think the overall message here is, while they have moved from the position most recently of, we don't need to even discuss a prescription Medicare benefit, to a position of saying, you know, we have one; ours is better than yours. I think any sort of objective analysis will find that it falls well short, and they have a lot more work to do.
Q Joe, what does the President expect to come of the meeting with Chairman Arafat this afternoon?
MR. LOCKHART: Well, as I think you know, the President met with Prime Minister Barak last week. He will meet with Chairman Arafat later today. The purpose of these meetings is to take the opportunity to meet face-to-face, to see what we can do to keep the Israeli-Palestinian peace talks on track. They have some very difficult issues to work through; they have a very tight time line. And I think the President thought it would be useful and effective to use this time to meet directly, to see what we can do to keep these on track.
Q Joe, will the President be bringing any new proposals or ideas to the table to try and help them resolve these difficult issues?
MR. LOCKHART: I don't expect the President to bring new proposals. I think he's using this opportunity to take stock of where we are, to look at the differences that remain between the parties. But we don't believe the time is ripe right now for a series or a set of American proposals.
Q Is the framework target date of May 13th still alive?
MR. LOCKHART: Yes, I think that, obviously, it is fast-approaching, and these are very difficult issues. But I think one of the things the President has come away with from his meeting with Prime Minister Barak, his discussions with Chairman Arafat, is the genuine commitment of both sides to reach an agreement by the ultimate deadline, which is in September.
Q Joe, did President Clinton complete his phone calls to lawmakers about PNTR?
MR. LOCKHART: Sorry. The question again?
Q Has the President completed his phone calls that he was planning to make today?
MR. LOCKHART: Oh, no. As I walked out, he had not yet begun them. I expect that -- but let me try to tell you a little bit about them.
The President will use an hour, an hour and a half, or so, today to talk on the phone to individual members of Congress -- I think they're primarily Democrats, people who we believe can support us when the vote is taken. He will make the case of how important this is, how important it is to our continuing economic expansion and the overall economic philosophy that we've employed here over the last seven and a half years. And my guess is, the best way to describe it is he'll make a handful of calls. I don't know the exact number.
Q Will he offer any incentives to these Democrats, or any assurances --
MR. LOCKHART: I think the incentives of the incredible benefits to the American economy, American workers, American companies, that China's accession into the WTO make a compelling case. And he'll make that case.
Q Will we be getting any kind of readout after the Arafat meeting with the President?
MR. LOCKHART: Yes, we'll have a senior administration official come down after the meeting, whenever that may be.
Q On another issue. The violence in Zimbabwe continued overnight. A couple of farms have been burned, and there have been numerous reports of attacks on farm workers. And Mr. Mugabe said today that he didn't see any reason to get the police involved in the situation. Is the United States contemplating any sort of action to back up the condemnations we've heard from the State Department today, and also from you yesterday?
MR. LOCKHART: Well, we've taken some action already on the land reform programs. I think the President had a discussion yesterday with Prime Minister Blair, who obviously is taking a leadership role in condemning what's going on in Zimbabwe. We continue, as you rightly point out, to condemn what's going on there. We'll make our case. And I'm not prepared to go into any more specifics at this point.
Q Is he satisfied with the way that Blair is handling the problem?
MR. LOCKHART: Yes.
Q There will be an emergency summit of South Africa, Namibia, Mozambique, tomorrow at Victoria Falls with Mr. Mugabe. Have we communicated our feelings, for instance, to Mr. Mbeki of South Africa? Have we asked any of those participants to tell Mr. Mugabe what the U.S. viewpoint is directly?
MR. LOCKHART: I think we've had a number of conversations with a number of governments at a variety of diplomatic levels. But I'm not prepared to detail them with any specifics.
Q Are we confident that Namibians, Mozambiqueans and South Africans are aware of our position and can convey it? Is that our intention?
MR. LOCKHART: I'm certainly confident that they're aware of our position and the international community's position.
Q Joe, can you confirm this report that you gave up $10 million in AOL stock options to take this job? And has it been worth it? (Laughter.)
MR. LOCKHART: I am not in a position to confirm the numbers, because as I worked on my abacus last night it made me cry. (Laughter.) I can confirm that an important opportunity to work for a fast-rising company was made to me. I turned it down for a much more important opportunity to spend each and every afternoon with you all in here. (Laughter.) And I think I need to read just my medication. (Laughter.)
Q You forgot the "was it worth it" part of the question, Joe.
MR. LOCKHART: I really do need to check my medication before I answer that. (Laughter.)
Q Are you exploring any options now, Joe, in terms of another job?
MR. LOCKHART: Depends how you define "exploring."
Q Talking with anyone?
MR. LOCKHART: I'm talking to you, now.
Q I'm not offering a job.
MR. LOCKHART: Then, next? (Laughter.) Anything else before I go?
Q If my colleagues will forgive me for this, but Joe, do you have any comment on the fact that Barbie is entering the presidential race? I'm sorry. I'm just the messenger. Don't shoot me. (Laughter.)
MR. LOCKHART: You're not getting the blender, first off. Barbie. Can't think she's going to have much of an impact on the race, unless they run Malibu Barbie, and then maybe California will be impacted. (Laughter.) Beyond that --
Q Yes. Talk about her qualifications for office -- I'm sorry. (Laughter.)
Q It must be a very slow day on Inside Politics. (Laughter.)
MR. LOCKHART: I think recent electoral history will indicate that some time qualifications, experiences can be overblown and overrated. (Laughter.)
Q Who's he talking about? (Laughter.)
Q Do you expect the President to be in touch with the Justice Department today?
MR. LOCKHART: I'll let you know. I don't have any expectation one way or the other.
Q Can you tell us what the President's doing in North Carolina and Arkansas next week?
MR. LOCKHART: I know in North Carolina we're doing another in our series of events on the digital divide. I'll have more details later on in the week. In Arkansas, I have to check. I'm not sure.
Q Daisy Bates.
MR. LOCKHART: That's right. He's at least attending a memorial service for Daisy Bates, and I think there is another event, but I'll have to get more on that. Tomorrow is Friday, so we'll do this tomorrow.
Q And he's going to tape the radio address tomorrow, right?
MR. LOCKHART: Correct.
Q Do you know the topic? Can you give that to us?
MR. LOCKHART: I do, but I'll tell you tomorrow.
Q Is he going to Camp David for the whole weekend?
MR. LOCKHART: I expect probably late tomorrow afternoon.
Q Come back Monday?
MR. LOCKHART: Sunday night or Monday morning, not clear yet.
Q Did he scratch Chappaqua this week? Was he supposed to go tonight?
MR. LOCKHART: We're always looking for an opportunity. The opportunity did not afford itself this week.
Q Do you expect the Arafat meeting to last almost four hours, as did the Barak meeting last week?
MR. LOCKHART: I would label that a problem of the Senior Administration official who has to deal with this tonight. That's not me.
END 1:45 P.M. EDT