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Office of the Press Secretary

For Immediate Release April 24, 2000
                             PRESS BRIEFING
                              JOE LOCKHART

                    The James S. Brady Briefing Room

9:05 A.M. EDT

MR. LOCKHART: Okay. Let me go through the schedule very quickly here for you all.

The President will go out at about 9:30 a.m., to the annual White House Easter Egg Roll, which I'm sure you can probably hear, it's beginning now.

He has a meet and greet with the Make A Wish group that are in today, as they usually are this time of year; and then with Easter Seals.

From there he goes to New York. He'll go to a fundraiser for the Forbes for Congress Committee. And then a DNC dinner this evening that will be attended by the First Lady, the Vice President and Mrs. Gore.


Q Joe, is the President convinced that the American people support the raid in Miami?

MR. LOCKHART: I think the President is convinced that the operation that took place Saturday morning was the right thing to do and was the only alternative remaining to us to reunite the boy with his father.

Q One thing that may not be perfectly clear is why it was the only alternative remaining?

MR. LOCKHART: Because the Attorney General was in close consultation with the Miami relatives and their representatives for three months -- for three long months -- through a number of conversations, negotiations, discussions. She traveled there, herself, to talk to them directly on a number of occasions.

For three months there simply was no movement on the most crucial issue, which was would the Miami relatives respect the INS ruling and the court rulings that the father had custody of the young boy. There was no movement on that. There was a lot of discussions about this plan and that plan. There was a lot of back and forth. There was a lot of moving of the gold posts.

I think any fair observer -- and I think all you have to do is go back and look at the pieces you've done over the last three months to find how many times the conditions changed and how many times they got close. They never got close on the most important issue. And no matter what anyone says, no matter how loudly they yell, no matter how impassioned their arguments are, when it came down to the very simple issue of would the Miami relatives respect the decision that the father had custody of the boy, the answer was always "no."

Q You know, Joe, they maintain that in their view there were negotiations still underway when the raid took place.

MR. LOCKHART: I think the Attorney General made very clear today that she gave them ample time to make a decision and told them that time was running out and that time had run out.

Q Joe, did the President -- was the President --

MR. LOCKHART: And let me take another point. I've also heard from them that they believed they were very close. I think that defies logic when you look at the fact that they would not move on the central issue. There was a lot of discussion about how you would do it, where you would do it, how it would work. But in those conversations, as I reported to you on Saturday, we thought during the evening had to show promise.

But when it came down to the simple issue, when it came down to the Miami relatives speaking for themselves -- not their lawyers, not their representatives, not third parties who were generally interested in finding a voluntary way to resolve this case -- when it came down to the relatives, they would not budge on the central issue of did they acknowledge the concept that the father had custody of the boy.

Q Let me follow up, if I may, Joe. Has the President expressed any second thoughts about the perception of the raid, about the pictures that were shown?

MR. LOCKHART: The President has not. The President believes that they did this having no other alternative and having the intransigent position of the Miami relatives as something that was clear that this was the only alternative for reuniting the boy with his father. It was done in an appropriate way; it was done safely, there was no one hurt; the boy has been reunited with the father.

And I think everyone has got to take a deep breath on -- you know, there are a lot of wild claims being made right now. And I think with time, people will be able to separate fact from fiction. I think everyone has a responsibility to try to report and separate fact from fiction. I think people who are saying things now are clearly, by their own comments, undermining their own credibility.

Just a sample from yesterday: there are a number of prominent Republicans who have come out and just made what I have to view as wild statements, wildly inaccurate. Tom DeLay went on television yesterday and said that there was no warrant in this case, that they didn't get a search warrant. It's factually not true and easily knowable -- if you're not trying to play politics. He made the claim that somehow the father hadn't seen the boy in three years -- and joining in a chorus from some anonymous people from Florida making the case that somehow he wasn't fit. Well, the INS made a judgment on this based on interviews and based on real information. That's not true. And I think Congressman DeLay knows it's not true.

The family made the absolute absurd argument that somehow the photos that were released on Saturday were doctored, that it wasn't really the boy. So I think we have a responsibility here, everyone does -- everyone involved here -- to put out the facts and try to separate the fact from the fiction, from the overheated and impassioned rhetoric; and from, frankly, those who very clearly have decided that there are some politics to be played here, some perceived political gain and they're going to play it.


Q Joe, now that the father does have physical custody of the child, what kind of a legal case do you think the Miami relatives have in the appeals process?

MR. LOCKHART: I think the Miami relatives have an equal chance, as does the Justice Department, to go into the court of appeals and make their case. There is a hearing on May 11th, that's the proper place for this. The Justice Department believes that the law is clear and their case is strong. But both sides will have their day in court, and that's the way it should be.

Q Has the legal equation, though, in view of the White House, changed dramatically since the father now does have the kid?

MR. LOCKHART: They never had a legal argument for custody. They had a possession argument for custody. Their legal argument goes to asylum and the ability to who speaks for the boy. That is an argument that will be done the way it should be -- rationally and in a court of law, where facts matter and where legal argument and precedent and the Constitution matter -- not who can scream the loudest or who can provide the best photo opportunities. That's where it should be and, on May 11th, that's where it will be.

Q To get back to the raid itself, did the President know ahead of time that the raid was going to be carried out by federal agents in swat gear with automatic weapons? Did he think that was appropriate?

MR. LOCKHART: The President knew the general details of the raid. And the President does think that it's appropriate. There was information that there might be guns in the house, out in the crowd. In the Miami paper today there is information about people in the house who had concealed weapons, permits. These are public servants who are asked to go in there and to perform what potentially was a dangerous job.

There's a question that should be asked here on the flip side of that, which is, how could the President, if this had turned out differently, could have sat in the Oval Office and talked to the family of those who went in if he had said, well, we sent them in unprotected because we were a little worried about the perception here.

This was done responsibly, carefully. It was a limited operation that took less than three minutes, with eight people. I think, given -- and, ultimately, the most important fact, the most important piece of information here is all this could have been avoided; none of this had to happen. This happened because the family did not respect the legal process here that dictated the father should be reunited with the young boy.

That lack of respect and the unwillingness to go along with what the court said and what the INS said, led to no other alternative.

Q Joe, do we have any objections to the Attorney General or other officials cooperating in a Hill investigation?

MR. LOCKHART: No. The Attorney General made it very clear that she'll talk to whoever wants to talk to her up on Capitol Hill. I think that the American public should not be surprised that the first reaction from Capitol Hill is -- at least from many of the leaders -- is personal attacks on the Attorney General, personal attacks on the President, and then an announcement of extensive investigative hearings.

I think, ultimately, legislating is about making choices. If they make the choice that this is what they want to dominate the next weeks and months, and not issues like prescription drugs and minimum wage and patients' bill of rights, that's the choice they make. And that's -- we've seen in the past their desire to try to politicize a lot of things, and we'll just have to see where we go.

Q Joe, the father could petition to repeal the asylum appeal. He has said that he doesn't want Elian to have asylum, and he could do that and then take the boy home. Do you still think that they should stay here -- considering all the bad faith bargaining that you've said that's been going on, do you still think that he should be obligated to stay until the hearing?

MR. LOCKHART: We believe that the court has been very clear on that subject, and the boy will stay here until this case -- the litigation in this case is concluded.

Q Joe, you made some reference to allegations and speculation earlier. One of the allegations and speculation that's cropped up is whether any medication has been provided to Elian. Can you address that?

MR. LOCKHART: I think there was a question raised by one of the family members that the boy was drugged, as part of being brainwashed -- and I have no information that any of that is true.

Q What does the President think of the Vice President's failure to specifically endorse the raid?

MR. LOCKHART: I think the President believes that the Vice President has a different point of view on this case, and that his response was appropriate and was limited, and was not anything like some of the overblown rhetoric that we've seen from some others.

Q Do you envision the President meeting with any of the principals in this story?

MR. LOCKHART: I don't think so. I can't imagine that.

Q Has he been in touch with any elected officials in Florida, either state officials, city officials or members of Congress?

MR. LOCKHART: I don't know the answer to that. He certainly was in the days leading up to this, but since the operation, I don't know the answer.

Q Do you expect the President and Vice President to discuss the issue this evening when they meet in New York?

MR. LOCKHART: I have no way of anticipating.

Q Were the federal agents authorized to shoot if they were confronted with anybody who was armed?

MR. LOCKHART: If you want to talk about the rules of engagement, I'd suggest you go to the INS.

Q Joe, does the President find it at all odd that tonight he'll be raising money for a man who voted to impeach him?

MR. LOCKHART: This afternoon. I think that the President believes that that is a period of time that he's put behind him, that the country has put behind them. I think that Congressman Forbes was increasingly uncomfortable with the extreme wing of the Republican Party dominating their ideology and their politics; was extremely uncomfortable remaining in the Republican Party. And he was someone who was welcome in the Democratic Party.

Q On my favorite subject, Zimbabwe. Over the weekend, violence continued and after the summit in Victoria Falls, the African leaders were there from Mozambique, Namibia,, South Africa, did not condemn Mr. Mugabe. Where does that leave the situation --

MR. LOCKHART: Well, the situation is, as I understand it, there is continuing violence, we continue to condemn that violence and call on the government of Zimbabwe to uphold the rule of law and enforce court orders.

Anybody else? Okay, we're done. Oh, do you have something? I've got a few more minutes, if you want. If you've got a question, have a seat. Listen, when Lester is not here, I'm happy to stay all day. (Laughter.)

Q It's an honor. Let me ask you, is the President in favor of the relatives from Miami eventually meeting Juan Miguel and the child?

MR. LOCKHART: I think that's something up to Juan Miguel. I think the Attorney General stated clearly on Saturday that in the optimum situation, the family should be able to come together in some way, shape or form.

But I think now the most important thing is that they're given the time as a family away from the glare of the media and all of those who have their own political agendas, and that they have a chance to work through all of the issues that they must have. You know, the father had not seen the boy in five months; it was a very difficult experience getting to this country, obviously; and very difficult experience over the last few months.

I think -- you know, there is -- and it goes to why we all believed that this was the only remaining alternative. The boy is living now in a vastly different environment than he lived in over the last few months. He is with his father. He is not part of a media circus. He is not being subjected to the constant attention that must have been so difficult to deal with.

So it's important to remember that letting this thing stretch out another three or four or five months was not something, in our view, was a useful place to have a six year old boy in the middle of.

Q Will they be staying at the Wye Plantation --

MR. LOCKHART: I honestly don't know the arrangements. I know they're at Andrews Air Force Base for now, and I expect that at some point they'll move to another location.

Q Joe, if you've done this already, I apologize, but can you clarify what the President made -- what kind of commitment he made to Senator Graham? There's some confusion --

MR. LOCKHART: I haven't talked directly to the President yet. I'm not aware that there were any specific commitments made, but I'll double check.

Q Thank you.

END 9:21 A.M. EDT