THE WHITE HOUSE
Office of the Press Secretary
PRESS BRIEFING BY JAKE SIEWERT The James S. Brady Press Briefing Room
11:15 A.M. EST
THE PRESIDENT: Can anyone name that tune?
Q The Nebraska fight song.
MR. SIEWERT: You got it. "Hail Varsity." There will be a special souvenir for the man in the back. On December 8, President Clinton will travel to Nebraska to make remarks at the Kearney campus of the University of Nebraska. There will be special prizes for reporters who can answer the following questions: What does the word, "Nebraska," mean?
Q Sounds like -- (Laughter.)
MR. SIEWERT: No winners there. We'll defer that one. Q Bob Kerrey. MR. SIEWERT: Flat water is the correct answer. It's an
Q Never been there.
MR. SIEWERT: Never been there? Really? Well, we'll be learning a lot about it. For those of you who don't know, we have a lot of facts back in my office, compiled by Liz, one of our star interns who is from Nebraska, attends school there, including the fact that the following items, according to Nebraskans, were developed there -- the TV dinner, in 1953; Kool-Aid, in 1927 -- who knew? The Reuben sandwich, which seems unlikely, but apparently true. (Applause.) Cliff Notes, which I've used from time to time. The ATM machine, as well; and also, 911.
So the details of that trip are still TBD, but we'll be trying to -- all set.
At 11:45 a.m. today, John Podesta will chair the first meeting of the Presidential Transition Coordinating Council in the Roosevelt Room. There's no coverage of that, but I'll give you a little rundown on what's going on there. They'll run through the basic agenda of the meeting, run through the executive order, what the Presidential Transition Act of 2000 -- how's that's changed the transition process a little bit; some of the materials required under legislation and the executive order, that was issued. And it's essentially the first organizing meeting of this council to prepare for a smooth transition. We'll be trying to determine which agencies have which responsibilities, identify areas for improvement to assess the work that we've already done and some of the work that's going on; run through reports from the various agencies and what the next steps are.
As we've said before, given the unusual situation we're in, we're doing everything we can to ensure that the transition is a smooth one. We're proceeding on parallel tracks now as much as possible in terms of intelligence briefings, in terms of giving both teams an opportunity here where we are and what we're doing.
John Podesta has been in touch with both the parties to arrange meetings. Those haven't been set yet, but we expect they'll happen in the near future and give them all a chance to hear what we are and what we're planning going.
At the meeting today, John will chair it, as I said. Maria Echaveste, who is his principal deputy on this matter, will probably be the one sharing future meetings, responsible for that work. Beth Nolan, our counsel, will be there, along with some other lawyers; and the head of administration, Mark Lindsay, Goody Marshall, who runs the Cabinet for us; Bob Nash, who is in charge of personnel; and Jack Lew, Director of OMB.
From the Cabinet, the people that were mentioned in the EO will all be there, or representatives from their agency, including Director Freeh, Director Lachance, Dave Barram and others.
That, I think, is it in terms of business, except for the President made a brief call to President Zedillo this morning -- received a call from him. Zedillo requested the call. He thanked the President for his leadership and support, and the President saluted the work that President Zedillo has done. He leaves office with the admiration of the people Mexico.
The President told him that he should be proud of what he's accomplished there. As you know, the President did meet with President-elect Fox, and we are sending a delegation headed by Secretary Albright to Mexico City, along with Barry McCaffrey and Maria Echaveste.
So there's no -- if a call or something happens around the inauguration, we'll let you know about that.
Q Does the President plan to meet with the Vice President when he arrives this afternoon? Is that going to be one of the Vice President's meetings?
MR. SIEWERT: No. I believe there's nothing planned. The Vice President is coming in around 12:15 p.m., I believe, for a meeting across the street that he's having, and his working lunch at this -- I don't expect -- I don't know if they'll run into each other. But I think he's planning on actually meeting across the street with some members of his team, office.
Q Has the President talked to the Vice President?
MR. SIEWERT: He told all of us in the Cabinet Room the other day that they had talked on Thanksgiving. I'm not aware that they have talked since then. The President called the Vice President's family to wish him well on the holidays.
Q Has Governor Bush received the intelligence briefings yet, starting as of today?
MR. SIEWERT: No. We're still working out some of the details. I think Sandy Berger has been in touch with their team and I think Condi Rice, and they may talk again in the near future. We're still working through some of those details and expect that we'll have -- work that out in the next couple of days. They may begin as early as next week.
Q Jake, where is Justice in deciding whether or not the FBI can start background checks while this process goes on?
MR. SIEWERT: I think you should check with them, but I think generally they're in the same place the rest of the administration is in that they may be able to provide some preliminary information about what work -- what the process entails, but they can't begin the full transition process until there's a clear victor. But you should check with them.
There's obviously -- I mean, we've just said more generally that a lot of the transition work involves personnel matters that can be completed, that can be undertaken by the team -- by either team right now. That involves selecting personnel, telling people where they're going to be so that they can begin to get a sense of how best to focus their efforts in preparing for the job. And a lot of the material that is the focus of these background checks needs to be compiled -- it takes a great deal of time. Anyone who has been through it knows that it's a pretty laborious process.
But until you've gathered all that information and filled out the forms, most of which are available on the web, the FBI can't begin its work anyway. In the Clinton administration in '92 -- we did a little research -- the first background check didn't even begin until the very end of November and there were really only a handful that even began in December. Most of them really began in January. The early work was mostly done by the candidates for the jobs, themselves, gathering their own information and putting together that, most of which could begin now by either the Bush or Gore likely appointees.
Q How often do you expect this transition group to meet?
MR. SIEWERT: I expect they'll meet regularly. Maybe once a week. I don't expect they'll need to meet on a daily basis, but I'll get back to you on that. But the work has been going on for some time and will continue to go on in the agencies and in the White House. Just today John sent around a memo to the White House staff asking them, as is customary, to submit letters of resignation. That gives the new President, whoever he is, maximum flexibility in determining how best to allocate -- make their staffing decisions. I'm working on mine right now. No, I haven't started, but --
Q Is that group going to eventually be brought to include whoever gets the transition keys, or is that strictly an internal White House group, the Podesta group?
MR. SIEWERT: No, that's an administration group that would be in charge of coordinating with the team that comes in. But that group itself is, yes, an internal administration team.
Q So do you see these meetings that you've been talking -- that John has been talking to Andy Card about and also the Gore people about just being between Podesta and somebody from the transition teams, or would they meet with some of these other people on the Transition Coordinating Council?
MR. SIEWERT: I think John would be the primary contact at this point. There's a limited amount of work that they can cover at the moment in terms of the other agencies. I think John may well have Maria there; they may decide to bring some other people. We haven't worked out those details. But the purpose -- I think I've said it before, but it's worth repeating that much of the work that is involved in the transition, both on our side and the side of the two campaigns, can go on right now, and is going on. We're proceeding on a parallel track.
We're gathering written information, information about staffing, about scheduling, about hot issues in the Cabinet and the White House. That's going on now, we're doing it. And there's no reason why that information eventually can't be provided in a reasonable time frame to the victor when one emerges. But that work is on track. As I said, I was involved in the '92 transition -- we didn't get a lot of that material until really the end of December, and a lot of the most important information actually came in later in the process.
A lot of the work that's being done on the part of the teams that are aspiring to the presidency can do on right now, in terms of selecting personnel, giving people assignments, collating the personal information that will form the basis for background checks can go on right now. There are limits. There is the well-known issue of the office and the presidential funds that's governed by a statute, and other agencies are sort of following the guidelines that are set by that law. But there's a lot of work that is going on now, both internally in the administration and within the two campaigns. And that work is proceeding apace.
Q If this does drag, you know, for another couple of weeks, those lists of decisions, of hot issues, is that information barred from being transferred to both sides under any statute?
MR. SIEWERT: I'll check. I think typically there is some sort of memorandum signed between the administration and the new team that governs the sharing of that statute. But I'll check on that specifically, whether there's any sort of legal barrier to sharing that information at the moment.
Q Jake, the letters of resignation, is that something that a lot of people write, or a handful of very senior people?
MR. SIEWERT: No, it basically goes out to many Clinton administration appointees and it's consistent with the practices of previous administrations.
Q Are these all the, basically, Senate confirmation folks?
MR. SIEWERT: Let's see. I think it is -- it goes out to virtually almost all Clinton administration appointees, so all the Schedule Cs and confirmed positions. There are certain categories of appointees that have been excluded: inspectors general, heads of independent agencies and the like.
Q What's the language of it? Does it set a date for the resignations to be active?
MR. SIEWERT: Yes, January 20th.
Q Jake, could you explain to us the process of how Governor Bush would be briefed -- for example, a national security -- and would he be welcomed at the White House for these briefings?
MR. SIEWERT: I think we usually -- that is something that is a subject of ongoing discussion. This has been done in administrations past and it's typically been done at -- they're designed in part with the desires and wishes of the President-elect, or in this case, both the Vice President and the Governor will be receiving those briefings. The hows and wheres of that are still being worked out, but I can't see any reason why he would want to come to the White House to do those.
Q Jake, in normal times, the outgoing President invites the incoming President -- usually in December -- these are not known times, you have the electors that have been chosen by the 12th they would vote in their respective votes on the 18th, and you've got Christmas holidays. So would you expect that the President's invitation to Bush or Gore to come to the White House would be in January, early January?
MR. SIEWERT: It's impossible to say at this point, given that we have no sense right now, nor do you, of when this may all draw to a close. So I expect as is customary, that meeting will take place. But I don't -- we don't certainly know of any plans of kicking it off soon or sending off the invitations.
Q -- on the phone with any Democrats in the past day, and is he concerned about some public opinion polls showing that some Americans, the majority, may want this to be wrapped up sooner rather than later?
MR. SIEWERT: I haven't heard him express that concern. I think he said to you the other day that there are some fundamental legal questions that have to be addressed. Those are being litigated, and we don't see any use in commenting on them because they're before the courts, before the U.S. Supreme Court, and that's being argued by both parties. They're both making very forceful cases to the public and to the courts, and the President is trying to stay out of that particular fray.
On talking to Democrats, I mean, he talks to Democrats all the time. I, myself, am a Democrat, I confess, and I don't know whether he's particularly discussing this in any great detail with anyone in particular. I know he's talked to Daley from time to time, not nearly as much as he did during the campaign. But, yes, he's interested and he's going to talk to his friends about it from time to time, but I don't expect that we'll detail those conversations from here.
Q Does it seem inappropriate for him to help with the Gore strategy?
MR. SIEWERT: I don't think we really have been involved in the strategizing of this in any way like the way that we played a role in the campaign, for instance, and for the most part, the President's public comments have reflected that. I don't think it's inappropriate entirely for us to share thoughts with the Vice President's staff from time to time. We do that all the time. We work with them, we've worked with the for eight years now.
Q But has he made any calls to Democrats telling them not to abandon Gore at this point?
MR. SIEWERT: Look, this is -- no, not that I'm aware of. But this is a topic that comes up in his conversations, just as it does in kitchen tables and dinner tables around the country. And if he's talking to a senator, I mean, there's no reason why this wouldn't come up -- or a congressman, for that matter. And as you know, he made a round of congratulatory calls after the election to people who won their elections, people who were involved in those elections. And did this come up? Sure.
Q Jake, about this Nebraska visit, what does the President say to Nebraskans who are genuinely offended that it has taken him this long to come to their state?
MR. SIEWERT: There's absolutely no reason to be offended. I mean, very few Presidents -- I don't even know -- Mark, you may know this, but I don't know that any other President has ever been to all 50 states --
MR. SIEWERT: Bush has as well? Okay, but inevitably, one state will be the last of those states. But that doesn't -- there's nothing much to be read into that other than sheer happenstance. The President is looking forward to going, will spend some time there, and we expect to have a good visit. But this is something he's going to enjoy, and we'll all be there on next Friday -- is it next Friday?
Q Do you know the subject of his speech?
MR. SIEWERT: We're still working on that, but I expect it will be a serious speech to the students there on a topic of national importance. But there's still an ongoing debate about how best to use that time and that opportunity.
Q Can you be any more specific about what Podesta believes the meeting with Card will be about? You previously indicated that it will be a very general meeting. Is that still the outlook?
MR. SIEWERT: Yes, I think we'll let him know what we're doing, what we're doing to prepare, solicit any thoughts he may have, any thoughts that Roy Neel may have, the Gore representative, about how to make the process work better, given that it's so late in the year and we still don't have a clear victor. So I think that the President has instructed his staff to do everything they can to make this transition a smooth one, given how late it is. And we'll give them an update on what kinds of materials we're preparing, what kinds of efforts we've undertaken at the White House to clear the decks for the new President. And I think what we'll do is just give them an update and solicit their thoughts on how this could better proceed.
But we're proceeding very much along parallel tracks. We offered to have that meeting with Andy Card together with the Gore people or separately, so that they literally had a choice to get the same information that was given to both teams.
Q Is there a date yet for that?
MR. SIEWERT: No.
Q Have they decided to do it separately?
MR. SIEWERT: We haven't heard back I don't think, definitively, on how they want to do that.
Q So what is off limits then at that kind of discussion, given that there hasn't been a decision? Is there something that would have been done in this meeting that won't be done since there's, in your view, not a clear result?
MR. SIEWERT: I don't think anything -- we're not setting parameters on discussion. Obviously, any question can be asked and will be answered. But I think there are -- we've already said that there are limits on what we can do under the law in terms of turning over the taxpayer money that's allocated for this because Congress has spoken on that issue and given us pretty clear guidelines.
Q Jake, if it is determined that Governor Bush is the winner of the election, will his transition team that he's setting up here in Washington, will they be reimbursed for any money that they're expending?
MR. SIEWERT: That's a hypothetical question at this point. I mean, obviously, eventually, one team will emerge as the victor and we'll have to confront that issue. But that has not come up yet.
I might point out it's not unprecedented to raise private funds, and they're not necessarily reimbursed. The Clinton team raised a lot of private money, primarily to hold an economic conference in 1992, which was held in Little Rock which helped chart a new path for the country, a new economic path, that proved largely successful, helping eliminate deficits. And that got a lot of attention at the time, was helpful in focusing, as the President wanted to do at the time, focus on the big economic questions, questions that hadn't been addressed in a while, and help set a new course. But we raised private money for that, raised several million dollars for it. And that money was not reimbursed. So that's something, obviously, the new administration will have to deal with after all this is done.
Q If the presidential contest is still up in the air when Congress returns next week, what pieces of legislation do you think will it be possible for them to reach final agreement on?
MR. SIEWERT: That's something we've been discussing internally. Obviously, we want to get the appropriations bills done. We think that's very important. And as I said yesterday, the education budget that we had agreed to with Congress got held up over some side issues. But the basic thrust of that bill was bipartisan in nature and provided a significant increase on the order of $7 billion or $8 billion in new investments in education. Just not addressing that issue, in essence, means a cut of $8 billion for education this year. That's a cut that will affect elementary schools, high schools, colleges, student loans. So we think that issue definitely should be addressed when Congress returns and shouldn't be kicked down the road for a while.
We have other issues that fund agencies, fund the White House, fund the Treasury, fund a host of other agencies. There is no reason why those can't be addressed when Congress returns. So the appropriations bills seem as though they should be able to get done when Congress returns in December.
It's a little tougher, obviously, to work through the tax bill and the bill that would help health care providers. But we think that there is some bipartisan support for some pieces of those legislation and we're certainly willing to work with Congress to make them happen.
Q You don't think that those bills in their entirety have as good a chance as they did before --
MR. SIEWERT: Well, the tax bill obviously -- the President indicated -- can't even remember if we vetoed it or not -- but, in any case, that bill was unacceptable to the President, so obviously we'll need to go back to the drawing board and try to find a bipartisan solution there.
Q Any other one -- the give-back bill?
MR. SIEWERT: Again, we had some objections to that bill. We need to work through those in order to make that bill a reality. But we said at the time that our objections to both bills were relatively minor, could be addressed in short order; it's a question of hours or a day or two, not weeks. And there is no reason why if we sat down together, we couldn't work those through in pretty short order so that we can give health care providers the benefits they need and give some tax relief to working families.
Q Does the President see the uncertainty of the election at all as a crisis, and has he given any thought at all about addressing the country?
MR. SIEWERT: I think the President said a number of times that he thinks things are -- that the American people are taking this in stride, that we ought to give the process a chance to play out, and that the American people seem to be taking it in stride. I don't see a sense of great alarm around the country about this. There's obviously a great deal of uncertainty, but people are dealing with it, and they recognize that this is before the courts and is being addressed by the Supreme Court this week and by a state court over the weekend.
So the President thinks that people ought to relax, as he said, take a deep breath, and let the process play itself out. Both sides are making a compelling case for why they think that they've properly won this election, and we ought to let the courts decide issues that are proper for the courts to decide.
Big room, no questions. We'll see you tomorrow.
END 11:40 A.M. EST