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Office of the Press Secretary

For Immediate Release May 22, 2000
                       INTERVIEW OF THE PRESIDENT
                       BY TOM BROKAW OF NBC NEWS

                           The Roosevelt Room

6:30 P.M. EDT

Q Now, to the President of the United States, live from the Roosevelt Room at the White House. Mr. President, good evening. Thank you for being with us. You need 218 votes in the House. How many do you have firm tonight?

THE PRESIDENT: I don't know, Tom, we're getting close. I'm not sure I agree with Lisa -- I don't know that we're confident, but we're working hard. And I think that the message is getting there because everyone knows, first of all, economically, China gets no new access to our markets and we get vast new access to their markets. This is not like a normal trade agreement, this is more like a membership deal -- they get in the World Trade Organization and we get great new access to their markets.

And secondly, I think all these people who care about human rights in China coming out for the agreement because it will move China closer to the rule of law and closer to freedom -- the dissidents in China, the new leader of Taiwan, the Hong Kong democracy leader, Martin Lee, the Dalai Lama even, all these people saying that this will advance the cause of human rights and personal freedom and the rule of law, and the fact that it's clearly in our national security interests -- I think these things are helping us. And so I'm optimistic. But, boy, we've got a lot of work to do. It's not done yet.

Q Mr. President, Wei Jingsheng, who is a leading dissident, is violently opposed to this trade deal. Let me read to you from the 1999 State Department report on human rights in China: The government's poor human rights record deteriorated markedly throughout the year as the government intensified its efforts to suppress dissent. By year's end, almost all the key leaders of the China Democracy Party were serving long prison terms or were in custody without formal charges. We're not going to be hearing those voices in this debate.

THE PRESIDENT: Well, we have also taken the lead in trying to call attention to China's human rights abuses in the proper international forum. But I think it's quite interesting that you have people who have been persecuted in China, or someone like Martin Lee who can't even go to China from Hong Kong because he's for democracy, saying that the only way to get China into a system that observes the rule of law more and protects human rights more and has more liberty is to have this kind of strategic engagement and put China in a system where they will observe the rule of law.

And there are dissidents, of course, who don't think it should be done, but I think it's really important to know that in China the main people who don't want this to pass are the ultra-conservative communists in the military and those who run the state-owned industries, who know that if we give them the back of our hand, then they can use that as a way of saying, okay, America's going to be our enemy now, so we're going to maintain our control over the military, our control over the businesses, our control over the people more.

I think it's quite interesting that in China, the people who want us to vote against this are the -- basically the more reactionary communist elements who would like to have America as an enemy for a long time to come. I think if you -- all the press reports coming out of China show that it is the reformers, the people who genuinely want to change China, who want to get into the WTO and who want to have a constructive long-term working relationship with the United States.

So I'm doing this because, yes, it's clearly good for America economically, but also because we fought three wars in Asia in the last 50 years, and I want to give our children a chance to have a constructive relationship with China, give China a chance to evolve toward more democracy. Is it guaranteed? Of course not --

Q Mr. President --

THE PRESIDENT: -- but it's far more likely if we do this.

Q Mr. President, the Interfaith Alliance that has been advising Congress and the White House on matters of religion has also come out against it. But one of the people who says that he's going to vote for the China trade bill is a New York Congressman by the name of Rick Lazio. Does he strike you as a pretty enlightened public servant?

THE PRESIDENT: Well, I agree with him on this, and I'm glad he's going to vote for it.

Q Do you think that Mrs. Clinton is going to have a much tougher race against Rick Lazio than she might have against Mayor Giuliani?

THE PRESIDENT: Oh, I don't know. I think Mayor Giuliani was a very formidable candidate because of his service as Mayor, because of the big drop in crime in New York, and because he agreed with us on so many other issues. He supported my initiative to put 100,000 police on the street and on many other things.

So I think that -- you know, I think it's a hard race regardless. But I like her chances because I think the people of New York will like her more and more as the days go by, and because they agree with her on the issues. And I look forward to voting for her.

Q Mr. President, in your home state of Arkansas tonight a panel for the Arkansas Supreme Court has recommended that you be disbarred. Your lawyer has already said that you will appeal, that it's unprecedented. Will you personally take part in that appeal and appear in Arkansas to argue your case?

THE PRESIDENT: No. No, I promised myself, and I promised the American people when all the proceedings were over in Congress, that I would take no further personal part. And I knew when the timetable for this was moved up that I'd always be at a severe disadvantage because I will not personally involve myself in any of this until I'm no longer President. It's not right.

The only reason I agreed even to appeal it is that my lawyers looked at all the precedents and they said there's no way in the world, if they just treat you like everybody else has been treated, that this is even close to that kind of case. So the precedents contradict this decision and ultimately the decision has to be made by a judge. And so we're going to give the judge a chance to do what we believe is right, and I think that's the right thing to do.

Q Mr. President, this comes in a state where you were the Attorney General, where you taught law -- you've now been held in contempt of court by a federal judge in that state and you've been recommended for disbarment. With all due respect, this is a stain on your record well outside the political arena, isn't it?

THE PRESIDENT: Well, when I'm not President anymore, I'll be happy to defend myself. And there is certainly another side to both those things you mentioned and I'll be happy to talk about it. But the main thing I want to say tonight is the only reason I agreed even to have papers filed, since I'm not going to defend myself while I'm President, is that there are clear precedents where more significant kinds of conduct -- even if you assume what the judge says is right, which I strongly disagree with -- that led to nowhere near this kind of decision. This decision contradicts all the cases on point that the committee has ever decided in the past. And so we'll let a judge decide whether it's right or wrong.

Q Mr. President, thank you very much. We'll be watching that, and we'll be watching the vote this week, of course, on China trade. Thanks for being with us tonight.

END 6:41 P.M. EDT