THE WHITE HOUSE
Office of the Press Secretary
PRESS BRIEFING BY JAKE SIEWERT The James S. Brady Press Briefing Room
11:30 A.M. EST
MR. SIEWERT: Ms. Jenni, also known as "Tiger," Engebretsen helped me select this shirt. So any comments on it should be directed to her. Thank you.
Let me begin with just a little schedule information, since we didn't have a chance to do the Week Ahead last week. The President has no public schedule today. Tomorrow, he will do the annual Thanksgiving Turkey Presentation at 10:05 a.m. At 11:00 a.m. he tapes a video message for Ramadan. And at 11:10 a.m. he will sign the Health Care Fairness Act in the Oval Office. That is White House photo only.
At noon, he will travel to the Capital Area Community Food Bank where he will do a tour and some sorting and boxing of items. I think he's done that in the past -- speak to the volunteers at 12:35 p.m. He then returns to the office, has phone and office time. We expect he'll depart for Camp David sometime in the afternoon, early evening, and remain at Camp David throughout the weekend, returning either Sunday or Monday.
Q Is Mrs. Clinton staying the whole time, too?
MR. SIEWERT: I believe so. You should double-check with her office, but I expect they'll travel together.
And on a sad note, we were very sorry to hear this morning that Lars Erik Nelson passed away yesterday, and I think we'll have a statement from the President on that this afternoon. But he is someone whose work we read very closely around here; someone who never accepted the conventional wisdom, and clearly a veteran reporter who spent a great deal of time not just reporting, but thinking through the larger issues. The President enjoyed his writings and will issue a statement later today.
Q Jake, do you have any details on his death or age or anything?
MR. SIEWERT: No. But I expect your colleagues at The Daily News will probably have some announcements on that.
Q Jake, will the President and Mrs. Clinton be attending the funeral or memorial services for Charles Ruff?
MR. SIEWERT: There hasn't been -- I expect they'll participate at a service of some sort. Nothing has been set as of this morning, but I expect -- I'm sorry, you're referring to Mr. Ruff?
MR. SIEWERT: As you know, the President visited the family yesterday, and I expect he'll be attending some sort of service. But they haven't set anything up as of this morning.
Q Jake, is there any -- on the Middle East -- anything that can be done to salvage the --
MR. SIEWERT: I think the President addressed that yesterday in his -- Sunday, on his interview with CNN. He says that it's a very difficult process, and one that he continues to work on. He's just going to continue to do everything he can. As we said in various venues yesterday, we condemn the attack against the school bus that was filled with innocent Israeli children, and we expect the Palestinian Authority to do the same, and to do all it can to stop the violence and restore calm in the region.
Q What about the withdrawal of the Egyptian Ambassador?
MR. SIEWERT: We understand that emotions are running very high in the region. At the same time, it's now more critical than ever for those in the region who are committed to peace to remain engaged despite the difficulties and all the differences. Engagement is needed to help cool the situation and serve as a bridge between Israelis and Palestinians.
Q Does the administration view this, though, as a potential major diplomatic setback -- the recusal of --
MR. SIEWERT: Well, I don't know about that. We do think that it's important for those who have served as a moderating influence in the past to remain engaged and to continue talking to the various parties that are involved in the process.
Q That sounds like you think Egypt's making the wrong move in withdrawing its ambassador.
MR. SIEWERT: Well, we do -- we think those who are committed to peace need to remain engaged with the parties. It's a difficult situation and there are a lot of differences between the parties. That was clear at Sharm El-Sheikh. But at the same time, there are ways to work together to narrow some of the differences and to implement the agreement at Sharm El-Sheikh. It's going to be important that everyone remain engaged in the process.
Q Jake, can I ask about the Peruvian situation?
MR. SIEWERT: Sure.
Q On the fact that Fujimori has resigned. What is the U.S. doing?
MR. SIEWERT: Well, we've had a State Department and NSC representatives have been in the region. They're returning today. And in the end, this a matter for the Peruvian people to decide, but we support the process that's underway at the OAS and in Peru towards free and fair elections that will deepen democracy in Peru. But it's not for the United States to back any particular individual in that succession. Peru will decide who their interim president is, and they expect -- we expect that the congress there will take up this matter today.
Q Have we had free and fair elections here?
MR. SIEWERT: We always have free and fair elections in the United States.
Q Is the President yet concerned about the amount of time that it's taken to work out the results of the election? It's now day 14, and speaking really in terms of the transition that needs to take place, particularly if it's Governor Bush, who would need to set up an entirely new team, you might think that he'd want most of the 73 days that he's allowed.
MR. SIEWERT: Well, I don't think the President is particularly concerned now about the time that this has taken. It's understandable, given the closeness of the election, that both sides will want to make the case and get the most accurate count of the votes in Florida and some of the other contested states. So he said as recently as Sunday that everyone should take a deep breath and let the process play out.
In the meantime, he's focused on the work that he has to do, and we stand ready to help a president-elect when there is one. In the meantime, either campaign can contact -- can begin its preparations on its own. That's a decision that they will make on their own.
Q Jake, when you say the process plays out, though, does the President believe the ruling by the Florida Supreme Court should be sort of a final --
MR. SIEWERT: We're not providing any sort of guidance on the various twists and turns that this will take. That's not useful really for us to say what the ultimate decision on this will be at this point, and I think that the President has tried very carefully not to get wrapped up in the legal wranglings here, and I think we will continue to do that from this podium.
Q Jake, to follow up on John's question, does the President think it would be useful for both Gore and Bush to go ahead with transition planning, given the fact that we're only two months from Inauguration Day?
MR. SIEWERT: I think that is a decision the candidates will have to make. They obviously have to decide how best to use the resources and staff that they have. They are obviously very engaged in trying to determine the final outcome of the vote, and they're directing most of their energies that way. At the same time, I understand from news reports that both of them have taken some measures to begin planning; that's understandable. But I don't think the President has a particular view on that.
We stand ready to help the new president when there is a clear winner of the election, and the President has already asked his staff to do everything we can here to make this transition work effectively. John Podesta has been spearheading that effort and we've done quite a bit of work, and we're ready to spring into action when there is a clear victor.
Q Given the fact, though, that if a lot of these federal departments and agencies have to take their marching orders from the new administration that's going to be coming in and that process now has been put on hold, how much longer can that get backed up before the agencies now, with all of the concerns that they have to deal with going into this new millennium, can't make the transition by January 20th?
MR. SIEWERT: Well, I think that it's important to keep in mind that the President will continue to serve until January 20th, and they're career professionals at many of these agencies that do a lot of the hard work that those agencies undertake on a day-by-day basis. And we're ready; we'll do everything we can to help. We understand there are unusual circumstances here, but we're ready to do everything we can to help make that transition a smooth one when it happens. But I don't think it's helpful or even advisable for us to try to provide a timetable for that.
Q Has the President spoken to Vice President Gore since he got back, or Daley or anyone else on the team, or does he plan to?
MR. SIEWERT: I don't believe so, but I'll double-check. He had not spoken to him during the trip. He spoke to him before he left, but I don't think that he's spoken to him since he got back, but I'll double-check.
Q Jake, the way you're talking, you say either campaign can call for transition information and help. But I mean, the way the situation is looking now, is there still hope for the President's second in charge, Al Gore, to be here?
MR. SIEWERT: I'm not trying to decide the results of the election. There are plenty of other people focused on that.
Q Jake, -- said a lot has been done in advance of a transition. Can you tell us what?
MR. SIEWERT: John Podesta has asked -- he's had some experience with this in the last -- as we came in, and has taken a hard look at it. We've done some work throughout the agencies, asked the agencies to prepare materials that would be helpful, and John has taken a number of steps that I think will help smooth the transition. But in the meantime, those transition plans are on hold and he's directed the agencies to wait until there's a clear designee, because that's what the law calls for under the Presidential Transition Act.
Q Is there concern, though, Jake, in terms of the FBI, just the large number of background checks and reporting that agency will have to do over the shortened time period?
MR. SIEWERT: Well, those background checks are extensive. Anyone who has gone through them knows that it takes a long period of time, months usually, to sort through them. But that's something that we had to confront as well. I'm not sure that a week or two here or there makes an enormous difference.
But obviously, I expect that the FBI, like other agencies, is probably taking measures to speed that process up as best it can, given the fact that they'll be looking at a slightly shorter time frame. But those, as you remember from the early part of this administration, often took months and months. A lot of people here had to wait some time for those clearances to come through. But they continued to function and do their jobs.
Q Jake, have any of these agencies or departments expressed to Mr. Podesta that there is a date by which, if this election is not settled, that they will not be able to complete the work needed by January 20th?
MR. SIEWERT: Not that I'm aware of. I've heard no such concern.
Q Jake, can you go back to Peru for a moment? Have you received any information about what will be the situation of President Fujimori in Tokyo? And do you think his resignation will help democracy in Peru?
MR. SIEWERT: We haven't heard any information about what motivated his decision or what, if anything, that Japan has told him. So those are questions best put to him and to the government of Japan.
In terms of whether his resignation helps or hurts, I think that's not for us to judge. What we're doing is everything we can to help the Peruvian government and the OAS ensure that there are free and fair elections next April, and that, in the meantime, they have a constitutional process underway to determine a successor. It's not for us to pick a particular successor, that's something that they'll have to sort through.
Q One more on Mexico. Has the White House responded to the invitation of President Fox to President Clinton to be in his inaugural ceremony?
MR. SIEWERT: I don't believe that we have. I think we are putting together a delegation for the December 1st inauguration, but I don't think we've finalized that delegation list.
Q That means the President is not going to Mexico?
MR. CROWLEY: No decision has been made.
MR. SIEWERT: No decision has been made on that front. I know that they've invited him.
Q Jake, do you know if the NSC is still giving updates to the Bush people on foreign policy matters?
MR. SIEWERT: I'll check. I think that one thing that Mr. Podesta made clear is that we could continue to provide the kinds of information that we would provide to a candidate in the interim process while this is being sorted out.
Q Jake, is the White House taking any affirmative steps to put a structure in place so that the transition can proceed more speedily than usual once it does get started?
MR. SIEWERT: I think in general that is exactly why John took some steps, and I'll try to get you some more detail on that. But John did ask the agency heads and the White House itself to put together some plans to help make sure that we had the most efficient and speediest transition possible. I don't know that there's any additional steps that we've taken in light of the prolonged period here in which the election is being decided, but I do think that the entire purpose of his work there was to ensure that this could go more quickly in some ways than our own transition did.
Q What kind of information would that be, transition steps? I mean, what kinds of things would the agencies need to provide to be able to smooth the transition?
MR. SIEWERT: I think it's fairly common-sense, but what kinds of information -- you prepare a list of what -- I'm not going to go through it in great detail, but a list of what the major issues are, what the outstanding decisions are, a list of the appointees that are -- what's in place, what's not in place, those sorts of things. The kinds of things that I worked on the transition and tried to put together on our own in '92.
Q Jake, did the President watch the hearing yesterday of the Florida Supreme Court, and does he have any reaction to it?
MR. SIEWERT: I haven't heard any reaction from him. I think he did catch some of the proceedings. I don't know if he saw them live.
Q Jake, is the President as Commander-in-Chief concerned with any of those challenges by Democrats to the absentee ballots from military personnel overseas?
MR. SIEWERT: I haven't heard him address that issue at all, one way or the other.
Q Jake, as far as things the President can do before he leaves office, is the administration planning to issue medical privacy or medical records privacy rules, and do you have a timetable --
MR. SIEWERT: There is work underway at HHS on that initiative. As you know, we're required by law to issue such regulations. But I don't have a particular time frame right now. But we are working on that. Congress, as you know, passed a law forbidding the administration from issuing such regulations for a certain time frame, but then requiring it to do so if Congress failed to act. Congress did fail to act, so the work is underway to provide such regulations.
Q And also, there were some unlikely allies that got together yesterday -- Families USA and HIAA -- to propose coverage of at least half of the uninsured. Does the White House have a comment on their approach?
MR. SIEWERT: Yes. Actually, we think that it's an encouraging sign that there was such a diverse group, people who are often at odds, that came together to support initiatives that would advocate significant new investments in health insurance coverage. We've said and have always believed that it's necessary to create bipartisan consensus to work through health care reforms, so we've been pleased that we've laid the foundations for progress in this area and, hopefully, that's something that a future administration will take a hard look at.
Q Jake, the President was sent a letter by some influential people asking for a moratorium on the death penalty. He is to make this decision on Mr. Garza's case in the next couple weeks. Is he going through any sort of process to make that decision, or where does that stand?
MR. SIEWERT: We did receive a letter from, I believe, it's the Citizens For A Moratorium On Federal Executions. The President has said as a supporter of capital punishment, he feels a strong responsibility to ensure that the death penalty is implemented fairly, that people feel strongly on all sides of this issue, and we welcome their views on that matter. This is something he's spoken to a number of different times.
He has said that he is troubled by the geographic disparities that were turned up by the Department of Justice report, and he's asked for people to take a harder look at that. That's something that we're still examining.
On the Garza case, we don't comment until there is a final determination on clemency petitions.
Q Jake, wouldn't the President naturally be concerned with the possibility that military personnel may be unjustly being denied the right to vote?
MR. SIEWERT: I'm not going to speculate on that. You asked me a question about whether or not he had expressed a view on that; he has not to me.
Q Can I ask you another question now, whether you think he would be concerned about that?
MR. SIEWERT: Whether he would naturally be concerned. I don't know, I'll check and see.
Q Jake, have you heard anything from the President saying that in light of all of these problems from this election, there needs to be some kind of change, maybe bringing some type of universal uniformness within the election system here in this country?
MR. SIEWERT: I haven't heard him say any such comments. I'm sure they'll be lots of people who have lots of ideas about how to change the system. I've seen some of them expressed, but I don't know that we've -- the President has anything to say on that matter.
Q Have there been any talks with Congress in the last 10 days or so? Any progress on the issues that were outstanding --
MR. SIEWERT: On the budget accounts? None that I'm aware of. We did have some discussions before the President left for Brunei with the Speaker and the Majority Leader. We agreed to postpone the session until December the 5th, and I expect that we'll be talking to some of the members as they return to town. But I don't think there's been much discussion while they left town, although I can't rule out any kind of contact. I don't think there's been any serious discussion of the outstanding budget issues.
Q Is that ergonomics rule, is that immutable now that its been published, or is that -- is there still some negotiation where that could be changed and returned for some of the priorities that you want?
MR. SIEWERT: I'll have to check. I believe it was a final rule, but there are obviously always changes to rules as concerns come up. But I believe it's a final rule, which means that any change would have to go through an entire separate process.
Q No decision has been made about going to Mexico. Does the President plan any more significant travel between now and January 20th?
MR. SIEWERT: Well, I think there are two outstanding travel issues which we haven't -- we just haven't made a final decision on. One is obviously the trip to Northern Ireland. The President has expressed an interest in going, but we haven't made a final determination. And the other is a potential trip to North Korea. Again, the President was actually very specific about that in a recent interview he did about why he might or might not go, but that is not an issue that we've made a final decision on.
Q What about Nebraska?
MR. SIEWERT: The President -- I can assure you that the President will travel to Nebraska before the end of his term, but I can't tell you when. It's a tired line, but I might as well repeat it. Joe said that we're saving the best for last, so I'll say that again today.
Q Jake, back in the military vote for a second. Does the President have an opinion on which statute takes precedence here in relation to the postmarking of the ballots? Does the state statute, which requires a postmark take precedence, or does the federal statute that doesn't require a postmark take precedence?
MR. SIEWERT: I haven't heard him express such an opinion. I guess I've said it a couple times today, and certainly before, but I don't think it's very useful for the President to weigh in on some of the more arcane legal issues here. Those are matters that are before the courts and ultimately the courts are the ones that are best equipped to make those determinations.
Q Isn't it generally held, though, that the federal statute takes precedence?
MR. SIEWERT: I went to law school, didn't take the bar. (Laughter.) So I don't remember how I did in that course, and I think I'll pass.
Q Jake, does he support the hand count?
MR. SIEWERT: Excuse me?
Q Does he support the hand count?
MR. SIEWERT: Again, I don't think it's particularly helpful for us to comment on the various positions that both candidates have taken. And they are well-equipped to make the best case for their own case. I told you before, I'll tell you again, I don't think it's much of a secret who the President wanted to win this election, and we don't know who the winner is yet. But the candidates are the ones who are best equipped to make their case before the courts, before the public and the President is going to stay focused on the work he's doing here.
Q Jake, not talking legal matters or transition, is the President at all concerned if this keeps going on for weeks and weeks that it somehow affects the standing of whoever becomes the next President?
MR. SIEWERT: I think again, he addressed that. He said very specifically in an interview with your network that there are lots of very divisive and ugly election battles in American history, and yet trying to draw one particular historical conclusion from those is very difficult. There were very bitter, divisive election campaigns that produced very unified governments. Jefferson being one the President particularly cited. There are also contrary examples. So I think tying to divine the future on this is extraordinarily difficult, and we're in no better position to do it than you all are.
Q Does the President support a contest of election by the Vice President under Statute 102.168? (Laughter.)
MR. SIEWERT: That's one of many matters that the President -- well, he may have an opinion on those; I'm not saying he doesn't have an opinion on those -- many areas where we will defer to those who are in a better position to make the case about why someone should or should not take a particular course of action.
Q Does he support the First Lady's call to abolish the Electoral College?
MR. SIEWERT: I have not heard him express a view on that. He was asked that, actually, in an interview with the Associated Press, and said that he had somewhat mixed feelings about the Electoral College, and then made both cases for it. You can read that interview, it's available on the White House web site -- (laughter) -- if Terry Hunt won't provide you with a copy.
Q Thank you very much.
MR. SIEWERT: All right, thank you.
END 12:15 P.M. EST