THE WHITE HOUSE
Office of the Press Secretary
PRESS BRIEFING BY JAKE SIEWERT The James S. Brady Briefing Room
1:22 P.M. EST
MR. SIEWERT: I'll begin with a statement on the trip announcement. Welcome, to our visitors -- do we have some folks from Tennessee, do I understand? It's a great state, the volunteer state. I spent some time there in '96.
President Clinton will travel to the United Kingdom and Ireland, December 12th through 14th this year. The visit, response to invitations from Prime Minister Blair; the Taoisech, Bertie Ahern; and Northern Ireland First Minister David Trimble; and Deputy First Minister Seamus Mallon. Building on the progress that's been achieved in implementing the Good Friday Accords, the President hopes that this visit will help to overcome current difficulties on the path to lasting peace in Northern Ireland.
Other than that, I have a week ahead for this week, which I'll do at the end. And I have no other announcements, other than to note that there was a release today out of the Commerce Department which was interesting, which showed that e-commerce sales spiked sharply in the last quarter, which is a -- this is a new figure that was developed by the Clinton administration to track the new information age economy. And e-commerce sales were up 15 percent, so that's a very interesting statistic -- shows that the information age economy, despite the ups and downs, day in, day out that you read about in the .com world is still growing and building a stronger U.S. economy.
With that, I will take your questions.
Q How's the transition?
MR. SIEWERT: Do you have a more specific question? We are meeting today with the Cabinet to discuss the transition. As you know, we're in somewhat unchartered waters here, but we think that we can maintain a steady course in making sure that the new President has all the information and resources they need to get in the job and be fully up to speed right away. John Podesta has sent a number of memos to the Cabinet agencies and to the executive departments within the White House to let them know about the importance of providing good information to the new President, the President-elect.
At this point, given the unclarity of the elections and the lack of a final winner, and given the ongoing litigation that's being pursued by both sides, we can't provide information to just one candidate; but we're going to do everything we can to proceed on a parallel track and make sure that the eventual winner has the information that he needs to conduct their business.
Q Does this mean you will start providing information to both sides immediately?
MR. SIEWERT: Well, I think what we're focused on now is making sure that we have the best information available. John sent a memo to the Cabinet agencies last week, that will be the subject of some discussion today at the Cabinet meeting, ensuring that we have briefing materials, a carry-over designee in each agency and that they begin to prepare transition offices within the agencies so that the eventual winner can avail themselves of that.
Q A follow up, if I may -- but nothing has been given to either side, and there is no plan to give anything to either side until a final victory is declared?
MR. SIEWERT: We'll do everything we can to proceed along a parallel track. There are obviously very discreet issues, but generally we're in the phase of gathering information now and making sure that we have the best possible information to give to candidates. There's an exception, obviously, on national security -- in the wake of the convention, Governor Bush received a full security briefing, and we're looking at ways in which we can continue to provide information on some sort of ongoing basis to him. The Vice President, obviously, receives regular updates on national security.
Q What will it take for Bill Clinton to actually fully cooperate with Governor Bush on transition?
MR. SIEWERT: Well, we're doing everything we can to provide information -- to get information ready. It's important to keep in mind that there's always a lag time here. In the '96 -- after the '92 campaign, it wasn't until even December that we reached an agreement with the then Bush designee that would allow for sharing of information. I believe it was December 5th. So there's always some lag time in dealing with these kinds of issues.
Most of the work, the vast bulk of the work that we do is gathering information, preparing offices, and ensuring that there's a smooth transition within the agencies.
Q Do you think the American people are happy to see that transition office empty with no work apparently being done?
MR. SIEWERT: Well, I think the American people -- there's a very specific statute governing that, the Presidential Transition Act of 1963. We've solicited from the Department of Justice an interpretation of the law. But it's pretty clear that given the legislative history there, that if there's any doubt about the outcome of the election, that no funds, no taxpayer funds should be dispersed. So I think the taxpayers actually have a right to ensure that the law is carried forward in a way that honors the intention that Congress had. This was discussed at the time. We've asked for a further legal opinion on that, but I think it's pretty clear that when it comes to actually turning over the office and actually expending taxpayer funds, they wanted to make certain that no money was spent until there was some certainty.
Q So the funds haven't been expended yet, is that what you're saying -- the GSA money has not been distributed?
MR. SIEWERT: No. No.
Q Jake, does that mean that the administration does not accept the certified vote from Florida?
MR. SIEWERT: Well, there are legal proceedings, and the highest court in the United States is going to rule on this election. That's a proceeding that was brought by one side. There are obviously -- there are other legal proceedings that are underway. And as I've said for some time now, it's not for us to decide how the law in Florida should be interpreted. That's for the courts to decide, and that's what the courts are reviewing right now.
Q -- the head of the administrative GSA is a Clinton appointee. Isn't there an appearance problem here? And who are you going to go to for this further opinion you spoke of?
MR. SIEWERT: We'll get an interpretation from the Justice Department.
Q Are you telling us that this would be handled just the same way if Al Gore were the certified winner in Florida?
MR. SIEWERT: I'm telling you that while the outcome of the election is in doubt, is before the courts, is being litigated, that we're going to move forward in a way that the law requires. The law is very specific on this. Take a look at it.
Q Given that the administrator is a Clinton appointee, wouldn't it have been better for appearance sake to tell the Bush people you can go ahead and occupy the office if you want, but if the courts rule --
MR. SIEWERT: That would be okay if it were a matter that allowed a great deal of discretion, perhaps. But the law is pretty clear. They contemplated that there might be some uncertainty about this, and they said if there's any doubt about the ultimate outcome of the election, that no taxpayer funds should be disbursed.
Q Jake, why not start turning over information to both sides so that whichever one ultimately prevails would be in a better position to actually --
MR. SIEWERT: I'm not precluding that option. As I've said, we've provided some national security information. We're going to begin -- we are in the process of gathering more information. This is something that the President wants to discuss with his Cabinet. We understand that we are moving at a different pace than we were.
But keep in mind that in '92 a lot of this information wasn't disbursed until later than this date right now. Most of the work that we're doing, the bulk of the work can go forward and eventually be provided to either candidate, as it has been in the past.
Q Jake, is it the White House position that this election is not over until one of the two candidates concedes? Is that what Gore has to do before any of this process will be set in motion?
MR. SIEWERT: I don't know that that's for us to decide. What we're doing is doing everything we can to provide information --
Q How is --
MR. SIEWERT: Well, that's a matter that's before the court. And I've sat here for two weeks now and said I'm going to be very careful about trying to provide running commentary about various court decisions, about various rulings by the state. There have been a lot of different rulings; both sides continue to litigate the matter. And we cannot get in the middle of that process. There's something underway before the U.S. Supreme Court; there's something underway before Florida courts. And we're not here to comment on the law and what it means; that's for courts to decide.
Q -- transition until the last court case is settled? No transition until then?
MR. SIEWERT: I'm not saying that, at all. But there's substantial litigation before the courts. There's a lot of different ways in which that could play out. This has taken a lot of twists and turns. In the meantime, we have a law that governs how transitions are handled and we're following the law and we've asked for further elucidation of that.
Q Well, Jake, what is enough clarity for this administration to cooperate with one side or the other?
MR. SIEWERT: Well, that's something that we'll obviously have to judge. This process has played out in a very unexpected way from the beginning, and it may continue to do that in the future. But I'm not going to put a litmus test down right here, right now.
Q -- by the White House Counsel's Office, will they make a recommendation to the President? Will the President make this decision on a political basis --
MR. SIEWERT: There is a very specific law governing the use of the offices. In terms of transition material, we're moving forward, we're preparing that information, we're on track to provide that information to either candidate or both candidates, if that becomes necessary. But the reality is that we're on track to do that. We're speeding up the process because of the unusual nature of the situation here. But we're doing everything we can to make sure that the new President, whoever he is, is ready to govern.
Q Jake, was this interpretation of the Presidential Transition Act of 1963 left to this administrator of GSA or was the White House in any way involved in saying, this is how this is going to be interpreted?
MR. SIEWERT: No, I don't believe -- I mean, obviously, we've talked to them, but I don't believe that we've given them an interpretation of the act. If anything, we've asked -- we've gotten a preliminary finding from the Department of Justice, and we'll continue -- we're looking for a more comprehensive one.
Q Jake, did you ask -- the Gore campaign to designate people to be the contact people with the departments and agencies?
MR. SIEWERT: Excuse me?
Q Have you asked, or are you going to ask, both the Bush and the Gore campaign to designate the contact people for departments and agencies?
MR. SIEWERT: That's a decision that's up to them. But we wouldn't -- we would have no -- I don't suspect that there would be any problem to giving at least a macro briefing about the situation to either candidate at this point.
Q Jake, what do you say to the Bush supporters who say this move is not fair and it's technically in support of Gore?
MR. SIEWERT: I'd say that there's a law, and we're following it.
Q Jake, on a more important subject than this, the trip to Ireland. The President has said constantly the last few months that he's not going to go over there unless there's something concrete that he can do, some help he can offer. You said that he's going over there to help overcome some of the obstacles. Does that mean it's going to be more of a working trip? More meetings with some of the leaders than he has done in the past?
MR. SIEWERT: I think that particularly the visit to Northern Ireland, Ireland and even -- will be focused on the implementation of the Good Friday Accord. I expect he'll have meetings both in Belfast and somewhere in Ireland with the leaders. And as you know, he has, from day one of this administration, been deeply engaged in that process. He's going to go at the final days of his administration staying engaged, trying to do everything he can.
So I expect, particularly in Northern Ireland, he'll have an opportunity to meet with all the key leaders and actually talk to the people of Ireland directly, both of Northern Ireland and the Republic, to explain the importance of implementing the Good Friday Accord and building on the foundation that that brings for a lasting peace.
Q To follow up on the President's travels, does the President plan to visit the troops any time during the holiday season? And, if so, where and when?
MR. SIEWERT: I don't have anything to announce on that.
Q As a follow up, please. Is it his desire to do so?
MR. SIEWERT: We regularly do something to stay in contact with the troops and wish them well around the holidays, but I don't have anything to announce. Sometimes it's in person, sometimes it's --
Q Just to follow up, since Mrs. Clinton -- is Mrs. Clinton attending --
MR. SIEWERT: I don't know, you should check with her office.
Q If she were, since she's now going to be the Senator designate from New York, will she have more of an official visit than just a visiting --
MR. SIEWERT: Well, Mrs. Clinton, on a lot of the trips the President has done, has done official events, as well as more social events. And that's something she's done throughout the administration. But I don't know of anything particular she has planned. I don't even know if she's planning on going; you should check with her office.
Q Is Dublin on the travel plan, or is it going to be somewhere in Ireland, you said --
MR. SIEWERT: We have not set the specific itinerary for the trip, but when we do, I'll let you know.
Q Jake, back to the transition for a minute. Where does the Governor's personal request from last night to this administration to work with him on transition stand, at this point? And has anyone from this administration talked to the Bush campaign about that direct request?
MR. SIEWERT: Not that I'm aware of, I don't think. I checked with the Chief of Staff, he had not heard from them directly.
As far as the request goes, the GSA matter is specifically before the GSA. I believe they've addressed that. On the larger issue of the transition, they should be confident that we're doing everything we can, given the unusual situation, to prepare materials rapidly and that we'll be in a position to hand them over should he be declared the victor.
Q But at this point you're not ready to work with them?
MR. SIEWERT: If they request a meeting -- excuse me?
Q You're not ready at this point to honor that request?
MR. SIEWERT: To have a meeting or to -- I mean, I don't see any reason why we wouldn't provide them with a briefing on where we stand, what's going on. We would do the same for the Vice President.
Q Jake, I'm perplexed as to why you feel the need to speed things up in terms of handing over of materials that you're now amassing. It's not a surprise that there was going to be an election on November 7th, why should you speed things up now? Why wasn't some of this done --
MR. SIEWERT: A lot of this has been going on. And I said that -- I've told you before that John has actually been engaged in this from day one. He sent a memo out to the agencies right after the election saying there's some uncertainty about the election, about providing direct information to the candidates. He said, since we cannot do that in the absence of a clear victor, what we need to do is make sure that we're getting all the information available, given that the new team will have a shorter period of time in which to use that material.
So the work has been ongoing. If anything, we're just speeding up some of the preparatory work so that when -- given the shorter time frame that the new President and the new team will have to work with that material.
Q Jake, another part of the transition is obtaining security clearances, through the FBI, of West Wing employees for either side. Has the administration ordered the Justice Department not to provide those sort of background briefings for any names submitted by either campaign?
MR. SIEWERT: I don't know that we've given any specific guidance on that. What I can tell you is that we have consulted -- we've been consulting with the Department of Justice to make sure that the FBI has the adequate resources to deal with this. As you know -- that's something that we're consulting with them to make sure that they have the resources to do this very quickly.
As you know, I've said this before from the podium, those clearances take a long period of time and a lot of the time actually is chewed up by people gathering their own personal information and putting that together in a form. I've done that myself; it takes longer than you think. And until that information is given over to the FBI, they actually don't have much to work with.
So that information process -- there's no reason why both candidates, both campaigns couldn't begin collecting that material on their own, designating personnel. There's always some lag time there. A lot of the work gets done on the part of the individuals long before the FBI gets involved.
Q If some were submitted by Bush people, for example, to the FBI, would there be any marching orders for them not to begin the process?
MR. SIEWERT: I don't -- as I said, I'm not aware that we've consulted with the FBI on that specific issue.
Q You would -- the White House officials, transition officials, would meet with Bush campaign transition officials if they requested such a meeting?
MR. SIEWERT: If they wanted to get an overall view of where we are in the transition and what steps we're taking to make sure that everything is going as smoothly as possible given the unusual circumstances, we'd be happy to provide that kind of a briefing to either the Vice President or the --
Q But you would not turn over any of this information you are gathering?
MR. SIEWERT: That is something that we have under review, given that the law is pretty clear. It says that you have to wait for a clear victor.
Q Jake, has President Clinton been consulted at all by anybody in the Gore campaign on either the PR battle going on here or the legal strategy?
MR. SIEWERT: I don't know about every private conversation he had, and obviously I imagine he has some views on that, but he has not been in regular contact with the Vice President or his staff about their strategy. He has obviously discussed this. Everyone in America has probably discussed it at some point or another. So I can't rule out very -- that some of his thinking might have made its way back to someone.
But the reality is that he's not in regular contact with Bill Daley or the Vice President. He's mostly been getting his information from the Chief of Staff here, the Deputy Chief of Staff, who have been in contact with the campaign.
But as I've said before, we're not providing running commentary on this, and the President is focused on ensuring that the nation's business is getting done.
Q What do you think about the path that Bush said that they would now follow -- establish their own transition committee and their own transition office. Is that going to be a problem?
MR. SIEWERT: I don't know that its really up to us to decide that. If they want to take steps to move forward, if the Vice President wants to take steps to move forward to make sure that they're ready, that's up to them.
Q Also, what is the -- what is the mood like among the White House staff with all this going on?
MR. SIEWERT: We're working, focused. I don't know that -- since the election we've obviously been engaged in a lot of different work here, and the work of the White House goes on. It's not a -- we're obviously, as the President said, watching the proceedings in Florida with a great deal of interest, but I don't think that has stopped us from doing our work here.
Q What's the week ahead?
MR. SIEWERT: Are we there? (Laughter.)
Q Not yet. Was Gore not invited to the Cabinet meeting today?
MR. SIEWERT: He's always welcome at a Cabinet meeting. I think he chose not to come.
Q Do you know why?
MR. SIEWERT: I don't know. Check with him, but I'm sure he's busy.
Q His office doesn't know. (Laughter.)
MR. SIEWERT: Oh, really? Well I don't speak for them on a regular basis, so I won't start today.
Q If the Bush people go ahead and expend their own money on transition expenses, and then later on, the White House is satisfied that he, in fact, is the President-elect, can the money then be --
MR. SIEWERT: I don't know the answer to that question. I just don't know the answer to that question.
Q Let me ask you a question on national security. Are there two levels of briefings for a presidential candidate and another one for a presidential-elect? In other words, do you get more sensitive information if you're the President-elect? Here's an example. In 1960, after Kennedy got elected, Eisenhower saw that he was briefed on the upcoming Bay of Pigs operation. There has been talk that this administration is preparing some kind of retaliatory strike against Osama bin Laden or unnamed others. Would George Bush, if he were the President-elect, get that kind of high-level --
MR. SIEWERT: Well, I'm certainly not going to comment on that kind of specific hypothetical. I can tell you that the briefings they're receiving are high level. I'll check on the exact nature of them. But Sandy Berger has also been in touch with their national security team and given them briefings when sensitive issues came up.
Q Do they go to a higher level, though, if the White House --
MR. SIEWERT: I'll check. I don't know.
Q One more on Middle East. Has the President given up on peace in his time in the Middle East situation?
MR. SIEWERT: Not at all. In fact, Senator Mitchell was in New York today trying to put together the fact-finding mission. They will travel to the region shortly to gather information. There were some good signs in the region over the weekend in that President Mubarak met with both sides and continues to play a role in trying to influence the -- bring people back to the Sharm el-Sheikh accords. And there's clearly much too much violence there and more needs to be done; but that work continues, the fact-finding work goes forward, and the President's diplomacy will continue.
Talked you into silence. Paula?
Q If the upcoming election is still uncertain by December 5th, does it make much sense for Congress to reconvene, given that they delayed coming back until they thought the election was certain?
MR. SIEWERT: Well, I don't see any reason why they can't come back next week and get some work done. But that's obviously, ultimately, up to them. We'll be happy to discuss what they can or can't do when they reconvene in December.
Q Jake, any North Korea developments?
MR. SIEWERT: No.
Q -- go on any Northern trips?
MR. SIEWERT: Northern -- (laughter) -- no. In fact, no one should read the decision about the Ireland trip as in any way, shape, or form, impacting the potential of a trip to North Korea. We have not made a decision on whether or not to travel to North Korea. That will depend on the substance of what we could accomplish there.
Q What about Nebraska, is he ever going to visit Nebraska? (Laughter.)
MR. SIEWERT: We are going to visit Nebraska.
Q Before or after North Korea? (Laughter.)
MR. SIEWERT: I don't know.
Q We're waiting for what?
Q On the way. (Laughter.)
MR. SIEWERT: We will go to Nebraska. I promise you.
Q For a football game or --
MR. SIEWERT: I don't know. I'd love to see a football game, but I don't think that's why we'll go there. Do something substantive, serious.
Q So that is a commitment, he's going to visit Nebraska?
MR. SIEWERT: Ironclad commitment. I will not let us not go to Nebraska. Never been there myself. No, that's not true.
Week ahead? Okay. Today, the President will hold a Cabinet meeting; pool spray. I'm sure everyone will enjoy that. The President has no other public schedule today.
And at 11:25 a.m. tomorrow, the President and Mrs. Clinton, along with Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, will convene the White House Conference on Culture and Diplomacy. The opening remarks and the opening plenary session will both be open press. That will include other luminaries, such as cellist Yo-Yo Ma, and the former Poet Laureate of the United States, Rita Dove, and others.
At 5:30 p.m. in the East Room the President will make remarks at a reception to celebrate the 200th Anniversary of the White House and the publication of An Invitation To The White House. The press coverage of that event will be in-house pool. An Invitation To The White House, for those of you who don't know, is a book by Mrs. Clinton which explains how the President and the First Lady have worked to make the White House a showcase of American art, ideas, culture and people. And I believe she's doing some other events and press in conjunction with that.
On Wednesday at noon, the President will host a visit by the U.S. Olympic and Paralympic athletes. He will make brief remarks and take a group photo with athletes at the South Portico. That will be open to the press. He has no other public schedule.
On Thursday, the President will travel to New York City where he will make remarks at the G&P Foundation Gala, returning to Washington that evening. The G&P Foundation supports the development of more effective therapies for patients with leukemia, lymphoma and related cancers.
On Friday, the President will make remarks at an event commemorating World AIDS Day. We're still finalizing the details of that event. He has no other public schedule.
And on Saturday the President will broadcast live a weekly radio address.
Q The --
MR. SIEWERT: Excuse me? I don't know. The Race Book. And for those of you who need a laugh, go to the Upper Press Office and see what my assistant, Jenni Engebretsen, is wearing today.
Q Thank you.
END 1:47 P.M. EST