THE WHITE HOUSE
Office of the Press Secretary
PRESS BRIEFING BY JOE LOCKHART The James S. Brady Press Briefing Room
1:35 P.M. EDT
MR. LOCKHART: Good afternoon, everyone. For the sake of those of you who have not seen it yet or read the statement on response to the press release from the Office of the Independent Counsel today, Robert Ray is now the latest investigator to complete an examination of the transactions related to the Whitewater Development Company, and conclude that there are no grounds for legal action.
Q What was the President's reaction? Did he have a reaction to it?
MR. LOCKHART: I think the President had a sense of what his conclusions were going to be, as everyone else's conclusions have been, when he spoke to you yesterday. So it was not much different than what he said yesterday.
Q Is he relieved this is all over, at least the Whitewater part of it?
MR. LOCKHART: Again, I don't think he's surprised. We had reports going back over several years that reached these conclusions. So I wouldn't -- I don't think he's got any outward sign of relief because this conclusion was reached in 1996.
Q Does that put Ray out of business now? Is that the last of it?
MR. LOCKHART: I think you'd have to put that question to him.
Q Do you think this press release puts the whole Whitewater matter to rest for good for both the First Lady and the President?
MR. LOCKHART: It certainly should, as have the independent RTC report, the hearings that were held by Congress and everyone else who took a long look at this.
Q Joe, the Independent Counsel did take a little swipe, saying that the White House had delayed and obfuscated and made unmeritorious legal challenges.
MR. LOCKHART: Well, let me take the last part of it. I think that the purpose of the court is to decide the merit of a legal challenge. We believed in what we argued; they believed in what they argued. And I'm not sure that we have taken the steps to criticize their legal position. We went and let a judge decide them. But he's free to make those comments and hold those beliefs. We just don't believe that there's merit to any of those suggestions.
Q Joe, was the President or the White House contacted personally, separate from this press release, by Mr. Ray about these findings?
MR. LOCKHART: Not the White House. The President's personal attorney has contact with the Office of Independent Counsel.
Q Has he been cleared now of every report, every investigation so far? He has, hasn't he -- the President, I mean?
MR. LOCKHART: Certainly everything that's been concluded.
Q There are reports that Mr. Ray may consider indicting the President for statements in the Monica Lewinsky case after he leaves office. Do you have any information about that from Mr. Ray?
MR. LOCKHART: I don't have any information on that, and I would suggest that you talk to him about that.
Q Joe, since this report has come out with no findings, no reasonable evidence that there were any crimes or anything committed, are the reports the same feeling here, a big waste of taxpayer dollars for all these investigations?
MR. LOCKHART: Listen, I think those who launched the investigations have now, after a long time -- I think this is the final investigation looking into this -- it has been a significant amount of time and money. But I think we'll leave it to the American people to make up their own minds on whether this was a useful exercise.
Q Joe, Senator Levin suggested a week or two ago that it would be improper for the Independent Counsel to put out a summary of his findings as he did today. Does the White House agree that it's improper for the Independent Counsel's Office to summarize the report?
MR. LOCKHART: I actually, to be very honest with you, think it's probably irrelevant what we think. The Independent Counsel has moved forward in the way that he thinks is best, and whether we think that's beyond the scope of the mandate of the Independent Counsel's statute or not is moot because he's taken these steps.
Q When did the President get the news?
MR. LOCKHART: This morning. I don't know exactly what time. I think officially, we were given -- the President's attorney was given a heads-up that it would be released at around 11:00 a.m., and it came out shortly thereafter, I think.
Q Joe, what do you think the impact -- do you have an idea of what impact this report will have on the First Lady's campaign? Because there is a lot of concern that there might be, even though there perhaps is not enough evidence to bring charges, that there might have been some innuendoes and things and such in there.
MR. LOCKHART: I didn't see any suggestion or innuendo in what was released today.
Q What was the First Lady's reaction to --
MR. LOCKHART: Haven't talked to her.
Q Do you think it will have no effect on the First Lady's campaign?
MR. LOCKHART: For better or worse, I think what we think doesn't really matter; it's what you all think and how you report it.
Q Did the President talk to the First Lady about the report?
MR. LOCKHART: I don't know that they've spoken this morning since it was out. They certainly were aware of what the conclusions would be, having gone through this process over the last six years. But whether they've taken some time out of their own schedules this morning to consult --
Q Well, there ought to be some -- around here, you're so terse about it. (Laughter.)
MR. LOCKHART: I am exercising every ounce of self-restrain I can right now. (Laughter.) When I get back into Jake's office -- (laughter.)
Q Does the President feel he should be reimbursed for the legal expenses that he is paying to pay for this investigation?
MR. LOCKHART: No, I think we addressed that question some months ago when it was improperly reported in a newspaper that he would seek to be reimbursed.
Q Is it really fair to portray the Whitewater investigation as kind of a bogus affair? Because there were 14 convictions and 21 indictments handed down as part of this investigation.
MR. LOCKHART: Listen, I'm not trying to portray anything beyond what their conclusions were about the President and the First Lady.
Q Joe, what do you make of the wording that Ray used in the statement "insufficient evidence of criminal wrongdoing." Do you find that grudging at all?
MR. LOCKHART: I think that's the wording they've used in all of them. It is a legal term of art, so I don't have any problem with it.
Q New subject?
MR. LOCKHART: Sure.
Q First, what is the White House reaction to the French call for a meeting of U.S. and European leaders and oil-producing nations this week --
MR. LOCKHART: My understanding is that there is a previously scheduled meeting of the G-7 finance ministers in Prague for this weekend. There was some suggestion in some of the wire reports that the French were calling for a formal meeting between OPEC leaders, and I think they have clarified that to suggest that they ought to continue an ongoing dialogue between G-7 countries and OPEC producing nations. That is something that we certainly support -- the dialogue we've been engaged in as you well know over the last several months concerning the historically -- above-historic rates of oil and some of the production decisions they've made. And I think it's quite obvious that when G-7 finance ministers who are charged with looking after both their own and the world economy get together, they will discuss oil prices.
Q But in your view, the time has not come for any type of more formal meeting of --
MR. LOCKHART: I don't know that anyone has suggested the need for that. We think it's important that we keep the lines of communication open, and they're certainly open between our government and the oil-producing nations.
Q Joe, can you give us an update on the Cuban plane situation, and was this a hijacking or a flight to freedom as we see it? And what about the nine survivors? Will they be granted safe haven in the United States? And I have a follow-up.
MR. LOCKHART: I think at this point it is not entirely clear, but it appears in the initial reports that this was a hijacking may be inaccurate. What will be done from this point on will be in accordance with the law, the Cuban Adjustment Act. One person has been taken for serious medical treatment to Miami for treatment. The other nine -- is it eight or nine, PJ? Eight. So the other eight remain on the Panamanian vessel. They will be transferred when the seas calm to the Coast Guard cutter, Nantucket, where they will be interviewed by the INS. INS will, in the process, go through their normal procedure. They would be granted the ability to come to the U.S. if they can establish a well-founded fear of prosecution. If not, they would be returned to Cuba, as is the policy.
Q What was it if it wasn't a hijacking?
MR. LOCKHART: I think we need to interview the people involved, but the other possibility certainly includes these people trying to get out of Cuba to someplace else.
Q I have a follow-up. Under the '94 agreement, there is a grey area here, and that is a so-called wet foot-dry foot situation. It doesn't really apply here, according to -- that if these people were, in fact, heading to the U.S., "intercepted at sea," then it would apply. But, apparently, their route of flight was west, not toward the U.S. And they crashed at sea, not necessarily intercepted. Would that give the government the loophole to allow them to stay?
MR. LOCKHART: I don't know that that loophole exists, but certainly we will be going through the normal procedure to establish the information before we make a decision.
Q Going back to oil prices, any further movement on the SPR decision? And also, was there a split yesterday between Energy Secretary Richardson saying oil prices are dangerously high, and the President didn't endorse that position; instead he said, we should watch the situation develop further?
MR. LOCKHART: I'm not aware of a split. I'm not exactly sure, I haven't talked to the Energy Secretary on the precise meaning of dangerously high. But I certainly know the President, as he said, is watching this closely. We are deliberating intensively on the policy options that are available to us. I think it makes sense for us to do that now, and to do that without providing running commentary on it. When a decision is made, we will announce it in the appropriate way.
Q -- intensive deliberation about the SPR options, specifically --
MR. LOCKHART: There are certainly a number of options, and as we've said all along, all options remain on the table, that being one of them.
Q There's been talk from here about how the effect of the OPEC increase in production won't be felt until sometime in early October. Beyond that, realistically, do you guys have a time line of when you think you might need to do something further, when you think the effects of the increased --
MR. LOCKHART: Well, I think as the President has said, the market is taking some time to digest the increased production decision, both in the sense of the normal factors that go into the futures market and production and where people are in their capacity and what other things have gone on in production. Plus there have been some outside elements impacting that futures price over the last week or so, that I think we talked a little bit about yesterday.
We're going to continue to look at this, and I'm not, at this point, willing to put a time line on it -- there's no natural cut-off date. What I will say if I've actually been watching some of the -- a little bit of the preview for one of the hearings that's on the Hill today and some of the coverage, and there are a couple of points that I think need to be made.
There have been a number of members of Congress who have talked about home heating oil and the need to have a strategy there. Unfortunately, we tried to work with Congress in developing a northeastern home heating oil reserve, and they wouldn't move on it. So we found an administrative way to do that. That's important for us to do, we've moved forward on that. We wish Congress would have worked with us on that.
The second, on the idea of some members have now woken up and said things -- well, we need an energy policy. Well, we've had before the Congress now for several years a comprehensive list of proposals as far as tax incentives, next-generation vehicles, things to reduce our dependence on foreign oil that Congress has refused to fund, or has rejected.
So I think what we need to do is look at these proposals. They make sense, they will over the long-term make us less dependent on foreign oil, and rather than engaging in a political battle, we ought to get down to what's best for the American public. And that's what they should be doing now, and there ought to be a little less posing for the cameras.
Q Are you disappointed that the person who has put the hold on the SPR reauthorization legislation in the Senate is Barbara Boxer of California?
MR. LOCKHART: Am I disappointed in that? No, I'm not. I don't -- one way or the other, we need to reauthorize that, and I hope we can move forward.
Q She has put the hold that is holding up the --
MR. LOCKHART: You asked me if I was disappointed, and I said I wasn't.
Q Joe, what do you say, though, to New England lawmakers, Democrats and Republicans, today meeting with Energy Secretary Richardson, and basically their consensus is that the President should act now?
MR. LOCKHART: I think we have been moving, we have worked very closely with OPEC. You've seen a significant increase in production. We moved forward administratively on the Northeastern heating oil reserve. Again, when Congress couldn't act, the need to do to some things, for instance, on the Strategic Petroleum Reserve, on reauthorization, and we are working very intensely on this problem. And to the extent that there are other options that can be deployed, we will announce them in due course.
Q But they're not suggesting that -- are not working intensely, they're just saying regarding a Strategic Petroleum Reserve, the time for the President to tap in is now. They're calling the President to tap in --
MR. LOCKHART: We understand -- they certainly understand their position. Their position is being clearly heard. We are working through a number of policy proposals, things that we believe are in the national interest, and when a decision is made, we'll announce it.
Q Joe, what's the latest with the list of the First Lady's guests?
MR. LOCKHART: Definitely not today. I'll try to get this tomorrow, but I should know better by tomorrow morning.
Q Joe, on a number of occasions when this heating oil issue has come up, the President has gone out of his way to mention that New York, in particular, and New England, in particular, are affected by this. Isn't that going to make people think that political considerations are playing a role --
MR. LOCKHART: No, I think it will make people think that the President understands the energy market in the United States, and that primarily the Northeast in the United States is the remaining area, except for a few pockets around the country, that still rely on home heating oil. So I think most fair-minded people will appreciate the fact that he knows what he's talking about.
Q -- between the U.S. and Italy over this fellow being put to death in Virginia, who was of Italian descent. Was that addressed today at all between the Prime Minister and the President? And, apparently, the State Department had a travel advisory out for a while on Italy.
MR. LOCKHART: I will have to check on that. I got a little bit of a readout, I'll give some of the issues that I know were discussed. They're in lunch now, so it is an incomplete conversation.
But there was an extensive conversation on the Balkans, particularly; a discussion on the upcoming FRY elections. They talked about the improving situation in Croatia and Albania; spent some time on Russia; and also some time on both sides expressing their views on relations with Libya and Iran.
Q Joe, the Treasury-Postal legislative branch bill that's working its way through conference doesn't have enough IRS funding in it, as well as counterterrorism funding. There has been some talk that if that reaches the President's desk without adequate funding, he would put that bill on hold, unless some sort of subsequent legislation reaches his desk, as well. Is that a strategy you're considering?
MR. LOCKHART: Well, that may be putting the cart a little before the horse, because those of you who watched the Senate floor yesterday will know that the person the Republicans indicated will be their public spokesman on the appropriations process, Senator McCain, said he's not letting the bill off the floor because he called it a disgrace because of all the pork barrel spending in it. So I think it's got to get through their self-designated leader first.
We believe, as I've said over the last few days, this bill significantly underfunds our counterterrorism efforts, significantly underfunds the IRS restructuring project that I think there's a bipartisan consensus needs to be done, and we once again will call on Congress to get their work done.
Q Joe, Senators Lott and Stevens seemed to indicate that they had worked out some type of compromise with the White House over this. They wouldn't have funding for IRS and COPS in this bill, but that they would add it to another bill, another appropriations bill. Would that be something that would be acceptable to the White House?
MR. LOCKHART: Senator Stevens and Senator Lott may have worked out a compromise, but I'm not aware it's been worked out with the White House.
Q Joe, on another matter of interest to the administration, hate crimes, what is your understanding of the status of --
MR. LOCKHART: My understanding is that I think the Republicans -- there was some movement to move forward on defense authorization and ignore the instructions of the House that were passed last week in the votes on hate crimes. But that effort has been put on hold and they're trying to figure out what they're going to do here.
Q Do you still have hope that bill --
MR. LOCKHART: I think the fact that they're trying to figure out what they're going to do here indicates that members who six weeks from now have to go face their constituents understand that they want hate crimes legislation.
Q Joe, a tax question. Senate Finance is marking up tax legislation that has fewer of these renewal communities that the President wanted. How do you guys feel about that legislation? Are you okay with Roth's level of $37 billion?
MR. LOCKHART: For?
Q For tax cuts, tax relief.
MR. LOCKHART: Well, the problem here is we've got multiple things going on and no real ultimate answer to what the overall levels are on the renewable communities. I don't have the specific numbers. I'm sure that between Treasury and OMB we've registered our objections. But we have a number of appropriations bills that will include tax provisions and no overall idea of what their ultimate or end-game tax position is. And I think what they're hearing from us is the suggestion that things will move very slowly and it will be difficult to reach a conclusion in this process until they put all their cards on the table.
I don't know that this proposal qualifies as putting all their cards on the table, because there are a number of other players in this process. I don't know if that includes the non-tax provisions that are on appropriations. We have several pieces that are on appropriations bills; I don't know if that number is in there or not in that, and that's the problem -- we don't know.
We're in a situation like we were last year at this time, where we had a game being played where at all costs they wanted to make sure their cards were never all turned over. And this year we're going to wait until they turn them over.
Q Well, what would it take to do that? Are you saying that you have to have an omnibus bill or --
MR. LOCKHART: No. I think they need to come forward and say, this is what we have, this is what our tax plan is and this is what we plan to appropriate for spending -- rather than the way we're going about it now.
Q But they said they couldn't get that number out of you for several bills, including --
MR. LOCKHART: They shouldn't have trouble on that, because we sent up a budget which very clearly indicated where we are.
Q Well, don't you know approximately what their tax plan is? I mean, they're --
MR. LOCKHART: No, we don't. No, we don't.
Q -- 90 percent for next year, and then you've --
MR. LOCKHART: Again, there is a problem with that question, Keith, which is you're assuming they're serious in this process and that this isn't something more than something to get you to believe something. They may have won over one, but they haven't convinced anybody here that they're serious about this. (Laughter.)
They need to turn their cards over, tell us what they want, tell us which of the tax bills they're no longer interested in, which are the ones they are, where we're going to work together. And when the gamesmanship stops, the real work will begin. And if that means it starts today, that's great. If that means they want to stay here until election day, that's fine, too, because we're not going anywhere.
Q Joe, do you agree with what Senator McCain has criticized as pork barrel projects?
MR. LOCKHART: I think certainly he's raised a number of issues, particularly on some of the courthouse stuff that is well beyond what we requested. And he makes a lot of sense on some of these subjects.
Q What about on the Olympic spending, specifically? MR. LOCKHART: I don't know exactly what his problem is on
that. I haven't looked at that. I haven't looked at, really, what our spending level is. I know that there's certainly an appropriate level to support these kinds of efforts. We have been big supporters of that in the past, but I haven't looked at the particulars on his criticism there.
Q Joe, can you talk a little bit about the trip to Flint tomorrow? What is the digital divide in Michigan?
MR. LOCKHART: Well, I think one of the things -- the President has talked on a number of aspects of closing the digital divide, because I think it's central to our entire society as we move forward. And in the New Markets trip, he talked about areas in the country to level the playing field as far as access to digital opportunities. He talked about it overseas as a way of an international closing of the digital divide.
I think tomorrow's event and remarks will reflect a bit on that, but will focus mainly on making sure that those with disabilities in this country have the same access to the opportunities provided by the new digital economy that everyone else, whether they be here, at home, or around the world.
Q Treasury Secretary Summers today called on Congress to adopt the President's proposals on school bonds for school construction. That's an issue that's been around for four or five years, I believe. Is it this year going to be a veto issue that if it's not in the education -- he's going to veto that?
MR. LOCKHART: Well we have a different approach this year, and so does Congress, which makes it more likely this is going to happen. We have some money on the appropriations side, as far as school repairs go, and some money on the tax side, as far as school repair and construction. Congress has taken a different approach this year. If you look at in the previous years, they've said, keep tax separate from appropriations. If you look at Treasury-Postal, you'll find a big tax piece in there. So they've made it clear that this year they're willing to allow us to take a two-pronged approach to deal with particular issues. That's a precedent that bodes well for getting school construction done. I think probably the nearness of the date of the election also bodes well for getting school construction done.
Q How much campaigning is the President going to do in the next seven weeks for the Vice President?
MR. LOCKHART: I don't know that we've come to any definitive conclusion. We're going to do what the Vice President and his campaign thinks is most effective, whether that's standing with him, going out places where he can't go and can't get to; whether that means going and helping Democrats around the country, helping the committees that are helping win Congress, the House and the Senate back -- all of those things will be taken into consideration as we look at the last two or three weeks and what will be most effective.
Q Have some candidates asked the President to come into their districts?
MR. LOCKHART: Absolutely. We get those requests all the time.
Q What's the status of the review of the Wen Ho Lee case that the President requested?
MR. LOCKHART: I expect the President to talk to the Attorney General very soon, and once they've had a chance to talk and discuss this, either we or the Justice Department will have more to say on that.
Q This week?
MR. LOCKHART: Probably.
Q In person or on the phone?
MR. LOCKHART: We'll see, we'll see.
THE PRESS: Thank you.
END 1:57 P.M. EDT