THE WHITE HOUSE
Office of the Press Secretary
PRESS BRIEFING BY JOE LOCKHART The James S. Brady Briefing Room
1:35 P.M. EDT
Q Joe, tell me about -- the President, was just talking about, about Wen Ho Lee. Has he registered these feelings to the Attorney General or just to Department lawyers?
MR. LOCKHART: I think you can assume by what he said there that is he is troubled by part of this, so I would expect that he will be looking for a more full explanation from them, have them look at this particular question that he raised and to report back.
Q But, Joe, he said he'd always been troubled by this, suggesting from the very outset. And, yet, he didn't express reservations to Justice -- thought it would have been improper or --
MR. LOCKHART: No. I think he said -- and I'm not going to try to decipher his words here, I thought he was very clear and I think no one could dispute that -- that there had been some questions, there was a rationale for holding someone without bail that seemed to disappear in a few day period. And I think his expression of trouble was in any case where people are held without bail. It's a basic tenet of our justice system and I think, as he said out there, he was troubled by the fact that this seemed to evaporate quickly.
Q Joe, just to follow up, if he was troubled by this from the outset and he felt an injustice was being done to this man, why didn't he step in sooner?
MR. LOCKHART: I would look at what he said --
Q He said, I always had trouble with this.
MR. LOCKHART: Josh, what he said when he was out there talking to you just a few moments ago was, there were a number of assurances that were made about the reasons for. And what he's troubled about here is that those seemed to evaporate between a hearing just a few days ago and the plea agreement that was announced yesterday.
Q Joe, he used the term "they," as in that he is not somehow part of federal law enforcement. Why would he do that?
MR. LOCKHART: Obviously, this case was prosecuted by the U.S. Attorney and those who are charged with that. The President is not charged with that.
Q Is anybody to be held accountable for conduct that the President says is very troubling?
MR. LOCKHART: I think as I said at the beginning here that he'll be looking for some answers to how this came about.
Q Well, I understand looking for answers, but my question is will anybody be held accountable?
MR. LOCKHART: Well, I think we tend to -- which is probably quite the opposite of what you tend to do -- is look for answers before we make judgments. You may want to make a judgment before you have the answers.
Q Was this criticism directed against the entire Justice Department, including Janet Reno, or just the prosecutors?
MR. LOCKHART: No, I think we'll look to have more information on this, but I wouldn't see it as a blanket criticism of anyone.
Q Joe, could you talk about Vietnam? Why did the President make this decision now? It's been talked about for several months, if not several years.
MR. LOCKHART: Well, you have to look at this in the context of an ongoing discussion that began, really, in 1995. There has been a bipartisan consensus, I believe, in Washington since that time to try to work toward normalizing our relations with Vietnam. We've taken a lot of steps, there has been a lot of work done on the fullest accounting for missing U.S. servicemen. We just signed a bilateral trade agreement some weeks ago. This has been an ongoing effort that, again, has been bipartisan in nature.
The President had a chance to meet with and discuss important bilateral issues with the Vietnamese Prime Minister and discuss a possible trip. And he also, as you know, has expressed an interest over the last few years in making this trip. So I think given all those things, now is the right time to go because we will be in the region for the APEC meeting, and now was the right time to announce it.
Q Has he considered who he might like to go along with, who he'd like to --
MR. LOCKHART: Oh, I expect that there will be a good representation from Congress, who have always expressed interest in this issue. Obviously, Senator McCain is someone who has been very involved in this. I don't know that we're at the point of putting out information to see who can come with us, but I'm sure there will be a bipartisan group from Congress. And we may even put together a business group on this, given the nature of the relationship.
Q Has he consulted with Senator McCain or any of the Vietnam veterans in Congress who have --
MR. LOCKHART: Well, there was some consultation -- I think Mr. Berger talked to a series of congressional leaders yesterday. The President, for his part, though, has taken the opportunity over the last six years to have these conversations with leaders in the Senate, particularly those who have experiences from Vietnam.
Q Two reflective questions about Vietnam. What does the President think about being the first U.S. leader to go there since the war ended? And, also, does he view this as his relationship, or the issue of Vietnam, for himself coming full circle, being a college student and opposing the war, and now making the trip --
MR. LOCKHART: I think, on the first question, the President believes that there has been a consensus that's developed in this country over the last few years that the time was right to move forward with this relationship, both in terms of normalizing our relations, signing the bilateral trade agreement -- but there's very much a symbolic value in the President visiting and going actually to visit the country.
As far as his personal views, I don't really think he sees this in an egocentric way, of how it impacts him, and where he was in the 1960s, or where other people were. I think he views this as a positive evolution in a relationship that he and many others have worked very hard on over the last four or five years.
Q Joe, if you have answered the question --
MR. LOCKHART: I've answered the next -- sorry. (Laughter.)
Q It has to do with the debate last night. Has the President talked to you about how he saw it?
MR. LOCKHART: Yes, he actually talked to the First Lady probably five to 10 minutes after it was over, got her on the phone, told her that he thought she had done great, and that he was very proud of her, and thought that she very much made a compelling and positive case for why her ideas and the ideas that the Democrats have advocated were in the best interest of New York. So he thought she did a very good job.
Q Joe, can you talk in detail about tomorrow's Prime Minister of India's visit to the White House? What is on the agenda really? The two leaders are going to talk in private, and also --
MR. LOCKHART: Well, as far as the meetings, I think, as you all know, the Prime Minister has a very full schedule outside of the White House. I think he was up at Congress today. He's got some other meetings. But for tomorrow, he will come over here, he'll have a small meeting of -- a small group meeting with the President, then a larger, bringing in some of the other ministers and advisors from our side. Then the President and the Prime Minister will have a chance to spend some time with you all, and then, over the weekend, we will have the dinner.
Q Joe, do you know anything about a delay in trade sanctions against the European Union and links to other festering trade disputes?
MR. LOCKHART: Well, you know, I think, you have to look at a lot of our trade issues in their entirety, and the President's role in trying to promote what's in the best interest of our trade agenda. We have been ensnarled in a dispute now for almost a decade with the Europeans on things like bananas and beef; we've had difficulty getting implemented a WTO ruling. And the President is taking steps to make sure that we do everything we can to ensure that our trade interests are protected.
Now, there is always a balance between the leverage of using your ability to sanction or put punitive duties on something, and your action of actually doing it. We are working very hard, we have no final decision on this, but we will continue to work hard to make sure that our agenda and our interests are advanced on not only bananas and beef, but also on ongoing area of discussion, the so-called FSC tax issue that has been at issue between the U.S. and the Americans over the last few years.
Q Well, Joe, is he going to impose these sanctions or not?
MR. LOCKHART: We are going to make a decision. We have in the past imposed some sanctions. We're in the process now of deciding how we will continue to deal with what we believe is intransigence on the side of the Europeans. But a final decision on what items will be sanctioned hasn't been made.
Q Well, is the story true this morning that it's on indefinite hold at this point?
MR. LOCKHART: No. The story would be accurate if it said that this is an ongoing process.
Q Is it likely that it'll be delayed until at least after the election?
MR. LOCKHART: I don't know when the decision will be made, but the decision will be made based on the best interests of our trade agenda and our ability to freely and fairly export products.
Q And just, lastly, it's an ongoing process, but it's been ongoing for many months now. Why is this taking so long?
MR. LOCKHART: This process, for those of you who are uninitiated, has been going on for 10 years and is very --
Q But the most recent decision on the --
MR. LOCKHART: Well, listen, you can focus at any single point in the process and draw some conclusions that would not be accurate if you looked at the whole process. We have been working very hard to sort through these trade disputes in a way that both advances our interest and avoids a disruptive trade war, we'll continue to do that.
Q Joe, you said that you thought that the President's remarks about Wen Ho Lee shouldn't be seen as a blanket criticism of anyone. Does the President still think that Janet Reno and Bill Richardson are doing a good job and that they retain his confidence?
MR. LOCKHART: Yes. Susan?
Q Did the President talk to the Vice President before making the decision to visit Vietnam?
MR. LOCKHART: I know that this has been an ongoing discussion, so it would be, I think, beyond comprehension if this hasn't come up in some of their conversations. Has he talked to him in the last week, in the final steps to making a decision about this? I'm not sure. I just don't know.
Q Joe, the President has occasion from time to time, at official political events, to run into Asian American groups an Asian American activists. Have they raised the Wen Ho Lee case with him? And has he made any statements to them, similar to what you just made to us --
MR. LOCKHART: I'm not aware of any exchanges on that subject.
Q There are reports out that the White House and/or the Transportation Department is talking about restricting U.S. exports of heating oil in order to keep the prices down. Is there any -- are there any meetings on that or is that in the works?
MR. LOCKHART: I not only have not seen those reports, I've not heard of any discussions that would --
Q There were reports on the market, that people are talking about --
MR. LOCKHART: Again, I haven't seen them, but I haven't heard or been privy to any discussion on that front -- and I've been privy to most of our discussions on this subject.
Q So are there any meetings going on today, even about SPR, about this whole issue?
MR. LOCKHART: I don't know of any specific meeting on that, but within the context of the NEC and the inter-agency process, I don't know that many days go by where this subject isn't discussed.
Q Joe, over the last day, world oil prices have been falling. Does that take away some of the urgency of deciding SPR?
MR. LOCKHART: Well, I think as we said on the first day after OPEC's decision, when prices spiked a little bit, that you can't read too much into one day. And as prices fall, we shouldn't read too much into that. The President has said that both producers and consumers will all be better off if we get down to closer to the historical average. And I think that's what OPEC has publicly stated is their intention; that is the right decision.
As we look at this problem, though, we do have to deal with where the market sets the price, what the supplies are. And we'll continue to look at it and keep our options open.
Q Joe, the Justice Department says it is looking into a matter from 1995. The DNC officials asked Vice President Gore to make a telephone solicitation to a Texas trial lawyer around the time that tort reform was passed and the President was going to consider it and vetoed it the next year. First, your reaction to that matter?
MR. LOCKHART: Oh, you know, it doesn't take a brain surgeon to figure out that documents that were provided three years ago and have been there for three years that now get circulated this close to election may have something to do with politics.
It also doesn't take a brain surgeon to figure out where the President is on tort reform. The President has been very clear that he had no interest in signing tort reform legislation that didn't protect the rights of those who have, for whatever reason, been forced to seek litigation to resolve disputes.
The President equally has worked very hard to get tort reform legislation that he can sign. We went very far down this road with Senator Rockefeller, Senator Gorton -- I think it was in 1997 or 1998. His views on this issue are very clear. And I don't think there was doubt in anybody's mind where he was in 1995 on the tort reform legislation that was passed by the Congress.
Q If I can just follow up. The Center for Responsive Politics has basically sort of looked at donations and these five firms, five trial lawyers and their --
MR. LOCKHART: I've seen what they've done.
Q Okay. Can you comment if those numbers before the President's veto and then the five time increase in donations following that veto, if there --
MR. LOCKHART: Listen, I think those questions are best put to those who make donations. It should have come as no surprise to anyone, given the President's views on tort reform, where he came out in 1995, all the work in 1997 and what his position is now.
Q Joe, just one other thing on the EU trade issue. Is it your feeling that the British Prime Minister has moved to a more accommodating position on some of these other trade disputes over the course of this process?
MR. LOCKHART: I think, as I would expect the same courtesy from my counterpart, it's best for the British Prime Minister and other world leaders to speak for themselves.
Q Joe, just to go back to Wen Ho Lee. If I understand you correctly, you're saying we should read the President's comments as to refer to what's happened in the last few weeks as this case has unwound, if you will. Would it be fair to assume that in the year or so before that, that Mr. Lee was in custody, the President didn't express any reservations to Justice?
MR. LOCKHART: Let me take another crack at this. The President expressed an unease with the concept of holding someone without bail. But what was troubling here was, after a series of assurances that this must be done because of the risk, that he thought that the timing of making that argument in a bail hearing and then just a few days later making a plea agreement that allowed him to go free raised some troubling questions. It seems to me that that's pretty straightforward.
Q And when you say the President expressed an unease, you mean he did that here in the Rose Garden or he's done that on previous occasions and, if so, where or when?
MR. LOCKHART: No. I think what he expressed here is that he has -- as a student of the law, that all Americans should have -- we should have a high threshold for the concept of holding someone without bail. But in this case, there were explicit assurances and reasons given, in this case.
And what's troubling is how quickly those seem to evaporate. And that's the point he was making. And it was limited to a very narrow piece to this, and I think it doesn't eliminate the crime that the gentleman pleaded guilty to and the important work that has been done on this. But there is a troubling aspect to this and he articulated what it was.
Q Has he, to your knowledge, expressed this unease prior to today? And, if so, when or where?
MR. LOCKHART: Not to me.
Q Does the President think he was deceived or misled or perhaps just not fully informed --
MR. LOCKHART: No. I think he said that the sequence of events raised some troubling questions. I think he certainly hopes that some answers are provided to ease that concern.
Q Does the President think Lee is deserved an apology?
MR. LOCKHART: I didn't ask him that question and I don't know the answer to it.
Q Joe, can you talk in a little more detail about what the President would like to do when he goes to Vietnam? What's on the agenda? Is it going to be trade? Is it going to be accounting for POWs?
MR. LOCKHART: We have a number of areas that we're working. Trade is one of them; accounting for U.S. servicemen; we have a joint cooperative effort on looking at the impact of Agent Orange. There are a series of things that governments can do on a government-to-government basis, you know, after they've gotten over and developed more normal relations. This has been an ongoing process.
I think there will be real work that will get done while we're in Vietnam, but I don't think you can get away from the idea that there will also be symbolic value to the fact that, after so much time has passed, a U.S. President is traveling to the country in an effort to help promote relations between the two countries.
Q How many days is he going to be there?
MR. LOCKHART: We haven't worked out the schedule yet. We're in that process now.
Q Joe, if I could just follow up on that. The American Legion --
MR. LOCKHART: I should have Jake take these questions. (Laughter.)
Q The American Legion, though, did express some criticism. They said tomorrow is POW/MIA Recognition Day and they think this day is more focused on trade and not enough on accounting for those missing in action.
MR. LOCKHART: I guess I would just say to anyone who has some concerns, work with us, watch what we do and then make the judgment afterwards.
Q Joe, given the high price of oil, is there any new consideration being given to opening up domestic areas to exploration of drilling that have been protected for environmental reasons?
MR. LOCKHART: I think we have a number of ways that we have promoted to decrease our dependence on foreign oil; unfortunately, most of those have been stymied by the Republican Congress. We continue to work -- you'll see in some areas where they've blocked us, we've taken administrative action. We will continue to work through those ways.
But the President, at his core, does not believe the right approach here is to start drilling in Alaska or in the protected areas.
Q At his core? So that's not under consideration within the administration?
MR. LOCKHART: There is no consideration of that.
Q Joe, Juan Garza, the Texas inmate who's execution the President delayed has asked the President to grant -- commute his sentence to life in prison without the possibility of parole. Is the President inclined to do that?
MR. LOCKHART: I think there is an ongoing process that I remember some discussion a few months ago and here on the guidelines that we were setting up. Those guidelines have been set up, they'll be worked through that. And I don't want to prejudge what the result of that process will be.
Q Well, isn't that about executions? Are you talking about commutation or --
MR. LOCKHART: You can commute an execution and leave someone in prison, but it's all part of the process which is now underway.
Q Joe, going back on the Prime Minister's visit. On Capitol Hill he called for this administration, that U.S. and India should have a stronger security relations now. India has really too hostile neighbors, one side military, Pakistan, and other side communist China. So anything coming of doing there talks at the White House about China, U.S. --
MR. LOCKHART: I certainly expect that security will be an important part of the discussion. I certainly expect the Prime Minister to be given a full chance to air all of the issues of concern to him in all of the areas where we work so successfully together.
Q Joe, you said the carousel process was an ongoing process and not an indefinite delay? What's the difference?
MR. LOCKHART: Well, the suggestion in your question was the delay had something to do with election day, and I was pushing back on that idea.
Q On the patients' bill of rights, does the President plan to contact any senators to try to garner that nine to ten votes need to break the filibuster?
MR. LOCKHART: Well, we're hoping we don't have to do that. And there are ongoing discussions between Congressman Norwood, Senator Kennedy, other supporters of this legislation. And we're going to continue to push. I don't know how likely it will be to get another 10 votes out of the Republican caucus in the Senate on this between now and when the Senate adjourns. But if need be, that's the route we'll take if we have to take it, if trying to defeat a filibuster.
Again, it's hard to believe that in this case the narrow special interest will thwart the clear will of the Senate and the House. But if that is the case, the ultimate arbiter will be the ballot box on election day and that's when those who have blocked this will have to face the results of thwarting this effort.
Q Joe, what is the White House's or the President's position on the legislation the House considered yesterday on stripping the Boy Scouts of their federal charter because of anti-gay discrimination?
MR. LOCKHART: You know, I don't know that we took a position one way or the other on that. I think yesterday, you know, you had a real vote on hate crimes that came out quite successfully. And I think that -- where we have put our focus, as far as this legislation, I think at this point it's more of a statement, rather than a real legislative movement.
I think people certainly have a right to make a statement, and they are exercising that right.
Q Does the President believe the Scouts should stop discriminating against gays?
MR. LOCKHART: I think the President believes that no one should discriminate. But as a legal matter, the Supreme Court has ruled on this and they have the right to, as a private group, go about their business.
Q Joe, the President has a little over four months left in office. He has a lot of travel with the election process and foreign travel. Are there any more state visits pending, or working visits with other world leaders.
MR. LOCKHART: Do we have one where we rescheduled? Yes, we have Italy and there is one that's still being worked --
Q That's a state visit, right?
MR. LOCKHART: Yes.
Q How about working visit?
MR. LOCKHART: What's the hand-sign for working visit? (Laughter.)
Q Joe, Sunday night will be the last state dinner of President Clinton's presidency to honor the Prime Minister of India -- (laughter) -- and one of the largest gatherings, 500 people are invited to the White House --
MR. LOCKHART: And it may be the -- (laughter.) One thing is that it may be or may not be the last official dinner. Of course it's special. It's a very important and special relationship. I think we have taken great strides, particularly in the aftermath of our five-day visit to India. And this is a chance to build on that and I think it'll be a wonderful evening for all 500 who get to attend and the many who get to watch it through the remarkable auspices of C-Span.
Q What's the menu?
MR. LOCKHART: I think it's food. (Laughter.)
Q Joe, does the President believe that Asian Americans will express concern over the prosecution of Dr. Lee -- is there some questions about the role of race in this case --
MR. LOCKHART: I actually have never discussed that particular case. But I think the President has spoken clearly, in the aftermath of 1997 and some of the campaign finance investigations, that there are questions and that times in this country Asian Americans have been singled out unfairly. But in this particular case, he's never expressed that to me.
Q Does the President or the National Security Advisor have any meetings with Israelis or Palestinians in the foreseeable future?
MR. LOCKHART: Sandy Berger has a meeting tomorrow with one of the Palestinian negotiators. There has been a series of ongoing meetings since -- well, leading up to and since the Millennium Summit in New York. Dennis Ross has been meeting with both sides. Secretary of State Albright met yesterday with the two sides. It's an ongoing effort to keep these discussions moving in the right direction, and that will continue with tomorrow's meeting.
Q Does the President have anything, that you know of?
MR. LOCKHART: No.
Q Joe, have you decided to release the list of contributors to the First Lady's campaign who spent the night at the White House?
MR. LOCKHART: Those questions were raised yesterday. I expressed my disgust for how they were raised, but since they are now out there, we are in the process of putting a list together for guests who have stayed overnight here at the White House and at Camp David. As soon as that list is ready and I have a chance to review it, I'll make it available to you all.
Q Like today?
MR. LOCKHART: I wouldn't expect it today. This is a process that, was indicated to me, is going to take a couple of days. And I'm not sure that we have the auspices to do it over the weekend, so it may be the beginning of next week. But if it can be done sooner, it will be, so that this story can go away.
Q Can you bring Lanny back to help? (Laughter.)
MR. LOCKHART: That's the problem, he's got the weekend off. He's with Joe Lieberman this weekend.
Q What kind of conditions would merit your releasing some of those strategic petroleum reserves? Your Deputy Energy Secretary has said that they're actively considering releasing --
MR. LOCKHART: There are a lot of things that we're actively considering. I'm not going to get into a detailed discussion here what we're going to do, what we believe is in our national interest as far as our overall energy policy. We've taken a number of steps. There are a number of steps that are available to us. When the process is concluded, we'll be glad to detail our reasons.
Q Thank you.
END 2:00 P.M. EDT