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: Good morning. I'm sorry I'm late.
Q No fight song?
MR. SIEWERT: No fight song today. But I've gotten a lot of good response from people in Nebraska. They're very happy. And we learned today that someone that we know here grandfather worked at the restaurant that invented the Reuben. So apparently, there's some truth to that. So we'll continue to apprise you with updates on Nebraska.
I have nothing to announce other than that President is shortly going to conduct an event with Jim and Sarah Brady, the man for whom this room is named, to celebrate the progress we've made fighting crime by cracking down on illegal gun sales, and strengthening our ability to enforce illegal gun sales. And that will happen shortly, so we'll try to make this happen shortly.
And we're releasing a new report and forwarding some new recommendations, directing some new action to help crack down on illegal gun sales, in conjunction with that event.
Q Jake, yesterday when the President met briefly with the Vice President, did President Clinton give some advice, like stay the course, or get out, or what did they talk about?
MR. SIEWERT: They met privately together -- I had a very brief discussion with the President about it, but I think we will keep the meeting private. It was a chance for them to catch up and discuss what's been going on in the world. But I'm not going to characterize it beyond that.
Q Are they going to meet again today?
MR. SIEWERT: The Vice President will be back at the White House today, and I expect he'll probably spend some time in the West Wing office. So they may again run into each other, but we don't have anything planned.
I understand there's a great deal of interest in their comings and goings, but now that the President and Vice President are both in Washington, both working on a daily basis, I'm not sure I'm going to be able to provide a running commentary on their every movement, short of a surveillance camera or something that we could play, if CNN would be willing to provide the resources.
But if they do run into each other, I'll let you know, but we don't have anything planned.
Q How long did they meet?
MR. SIEWERT: They met for about 15 to 20 minutes.
Q Jake, there was a meeting on the weekend in Singapore -- the ASEAN plus three that is South Korea, Japan, China and the ASEAN countries. And they decided on a series of rather wide-ranging measures they're discussing. Their experts' group is talking about creating a free trade zone in the area. They've revived the notion of the Asian Monetary Fund, which was very strongly discouraged by Treasury when it was raised by the Japanese about a year ago. But they have taken strides towards more regional cooperation and are taking measures to avoid a new Asia financial crisis.
I was wondering, how does the White House see this development -- cooperation in the region, and would they be supportive of, say, an Asian monetary fund if, in fact, it does lead to that --
MR. SIEWERT: We obviously have worked with the Asian economies to foster greater trade liberalization and economic reform in the area. We think that's the surest recipe to ensure growth in that area, and in the past I know Treasury has thought that the primary means for dealing with crises when they arise is through the International Monetary Fund, and that that's the best way to address those crises in a multilateral setting. I'll check with Treasury and let you know if their views have changed.
But we have tried, through APEC and through other consultations with our allies in the region, to encourage trade liberalization there. That was the focus in large part of our discussions this year in Brunei and, in fact, we did reach agreement with them to push through the WTO in a multilateral way. Further trade liberalization, we think that's the surest path to a more stable Asian and U.S. economy, ultimately.
Q But is the cooperation that has been achieved now, especially where the other ASEAN countries no longer seem to view China with as much hostility as they did earlier, and there is a greater cooperation also between China and Japan. Is that not beneficial to U.S. goals?
MR. SIEWERT: Anything, any effort to liberalize trade in a multilateral setting is welcome, and that's something we've encouraged both through APEC and through the WTO.
Q Jake, can you discuss specifically what the United States and Russia will propose at the U.N. next week, as far as sanctions against Afghanistan, the Taliban government, in hopes of perhaps closing down bin Laden terrorist camps or getting their cooperation in finding bin Laden himself?
MR. SIEWERT: Well, we already have some, as you know, measures in place, that call for the Taliban to hand over Osama bin Laden so he can be brought to justice. We continue to work with the Russians and with the other members of the Security Council on ways to step up the pressure on the Taliban, not just to turn over bin Laden, but to shut down the terrorist camps, as you said, and also to improve its treatment of its own people, its human rights record, and to bring Osama bin Laden to justice. So we're discussing some ways to step up the pressure on the Taliban. We've met with them from time to time to express our concerns, and we'll continue to work with the U.N. and with our partners there to find new ways to increase the incentives for them to do that.
Q Is part of the resolution an arms embargo itself?
MR. SIEWERT: Well, I'm not going to discuss anything before it's finalized, but we have some sanctions in place now, and we're looking for new ways, working with the U.N., to encourage the Taliban to bring Osama bin Laden to justice.
Q Could you describe China's level of cooperation and/or interest in assisting the U.S. and Russia in this pursuit?
MR. SIEWERT: Well, I think that work is ongoing. We don't have a new resolution put on the table yet, but when we do, we'll let you know. And we're always exploring ways to encourage the Taliban both to improve its own human rights record and to help bring Osama bin Laden to justice.
Q Jake, there is a whole slew of rules and regs waiting for the President's possible action. Would you anticipate he would be invoking any of those rules or regs when the next -- say, before he departs for Ireland?
MR. SIEWERT: I wouldn't rule that out. I mean, there are a number -- throughout the administration, obviously, we've explored ways in which, through executive action we can accomplish the interests of this administration and better the lives of the American people. As you know, since the election we've moved forward on a number of fronts. But before the election, frankly, there's a lot of executive action we've taken.
Our preference always is to work with Congress to solve some of these problems, but there are times when executive action is called for and sometimes is the only recourse. But, in any case, there's some work going on on medical privacy that some of you reported about. We have an interim rule on that. I wouldn't necessarily expect anything in terms of the timing of that one. But there are a number of issues that we're looking at, and we'll probably be taking action over the next days and weeks.
Q Jake, on another subject, President Clinton said that he feels that every vote should be counted. And tomorrow the U.S. Supreme Court is going to be the focus of -- well, it's going to be the place where Reverend Jesse Jackson is going to have a prayer vigil/demonstration, because a lot of the African American votes were allegedly discounted in Florida. What's the President's thoughts about this rally and the fact that the African American vote was supposedly discounted there?
MR. SIEWERT: Well, there are a lot of people who have strong feelings, obviously, about what happened in Florida and how the votes are being counted there or not counted. The President just stated it as a very simple principle. He also said that that was a matter that is before the court and that it was best resolved by the court, and that while he was free to state that principle I don't think we're going to get involved in any way, shape, or form in a case that's pending before the United States Supreme Court where two presidential campaigns are arguing and stating their case very forcefully.
Q A follow-up to that, though, Kweisi Mfume just made a statement yesterday and today saying the fact that the Justice Department hasn't done what the NAACP feels it should have in reference to this issue, that the black vote was not counted there. And that does not jive with what the President is saying.
MR. SIEWERT: Well, I think the President laid out a principle that he thinks is important. At the same time, the specific application of that principle, the particular legal interpretation of that is a matter that's before the highest court in this land. There are able lawyers on both sides of this issue for both campaigns arguing that case. As to -- I had not seen Mfume's comment about the Department of Justice's rule, but I'll take a look at that and let you know.
Q One thing I don't think he has even spoken in a general sense about is the question of whether a state legislature -- whether it's appropriate, whether it's legal, or whether it's constitutional for that legislature to select its own electors.
MR. SIEWERT: I haven't heard him express an opinion on that either. Again that's a matter that bears directly on the Florida vote, and he's been pretty careful to say that that is a matter that's before a number of different judicial bodies and he didn't want to comment on it. I'll check and see if he had anything to add on that, but I think anything that could bear on the outcome of this is something that we've been pretty judicious about avoiding commentary on, because it might be misinterpreted. And there are plenty of people out there who are making the case on both sides that are in a better position to do so than we are.
Q He says every vote should count. He's not just stating a principle, he's echoing the Gore camp's sentiments. The Bush camp is saying they should be counted within a deadline, and he's saying the same thing as Gore.
MR. SIEWERT: Well, there are very specific legal arguments about what that means and how Florida law should be interpreted, how the Constitution should be interpreted. And I think those are matters that are before the courts. They're being litigated by lawyers, and we're going to refrain from trying to figure out exactly how that principle applies to the very specific situation -- there are plenty of other more able people to sort through than us.
Q So he's not taking sides by saying every vote should count?
MR. SIEWERT: I've said a number of times here that I don't think it's any secret who the President wanted to win this presidential election. At the same time, we've been very careful to avoid providing a kind of running commentary and all the legal twists and turns this has taken, for very obvious reasons.
Q The Gore campaign, on a daily basis, through conference calls and other outreach, have been trying to keep Democratic governors, Democratic House members, Democratic Senate members "on the reservation," to use their words. Is the President or any of his senior staff augmenting or in any way assisting in those efforts with phone calls or other communications?
MR. SIEWERT: I don't believe that we're part of that strategy, per se. I think what I said yesterday is true, that Democrats, from time to time, contact the White House. We have a lot of friends in the Democratic Party and the Democratic Congress, and so it's inevitable that some of these -- that this entire topic would arise. But I don't believe we've been enlisted by the Gore team to assist them in that effort. I'm not saying that they're haven't been discussions about what's going on, but I don't think we're part of any greater lobbying effort.
Q When you say you don't believe, are you saying you don't know?
MR. SIEWERT: I'm just saying that it's very hard to characterize every conversation that ever happened at the White House with everyone who is on the Hill or out in the Democratic Party. At the same time, we're not part of any -- I don't believe we've been enlisted in any sort of more concrete way to help the Gore campaign. They're perfectly capable of running that operation on their own. But I think it's just impossible to rule out that at some point, someone might have said something that could be interpreted that way.
Q But, Jake, isn't something missing -- many Americans are saying this whole thing is just a mess. Republicans are saying that the election process is not perfect, but it's fair. The Clinton administration is saying that every vote should count. But where is the person coming in the middle saying, let's do something about this, let's change this, let's fix this? Why not the Clinton administration?
MR. SIEWERT: Well, in the middle of what is essentially a fight about an election, about a political process, it's important that both campaigns make their case and make their case before courts that are interpreting these decisions. I think our view is that the President has a role to play, as the head of the Executive Branch and as someone who needs to tend to the nation's business, and keep his eye on the ball, and that's what we're doing.
Q But, Jake, Mrs. Clinton came up the day after the election, saying the electorial college should be abolished, and now she --
MR. SIEWERT: Well, as a Senator-elect, that's her prerogative. That's absolutely -- that's something -- she has a new role and she's speaking out in a way about legislation that she may be considering when she takes a role in the Senate. That's perfectly appropriate.
Q Does the President feel the Republicans are engaging in a spin campaign to lay claim to the presidency even without it being resolved through any other legal --
MR. SIEWERT: That's hard to imagine. I do think that there has been --
Q -- leading the witness. (Laughter.)
MR. SIEWERT: That's a tough question. Do you want to rephrase that question? I think -- look, I think there are a lot of able communicators on both sides of this issue that are making their best case. I do think it will be best if there was a little bit less of the kind of heavy-handed tactics that were detailed in the Washington Post today, in terms of trying to intimidate lawmakers. But I don't think -- generally, I haven't heard him express an opinion on that other than to say that both sides are actually out there, trying to make the best case they can.
Q If I can follow up on that. Is he now encouraging Gore to take steps in the same direction to do what he could to also --
MR. SIEWERT: I don't know. The Vice President has been out on TV, explaining his case, and he's been making a very forceful case. But there are, frankly, people on both sides of this issue that are in a better position to state their case than we are.
Q Jake, did anything of value come out of Podesta's transition group yesterday?
MR. SIEWERT: Absolutely.
Q What was that?
MR. SIEWERT: They agreed to meet again, for one. (Laughter.) No, there was some discussion. Basically, it gave us a better sense of where people were and where they were in the status of preparation, and I think we got some more specific understanding of what the task was ahead of us. But I think the work is on track and it's proceeding. I submitted my own letter of resignation today, effective January 20th, so you'll have to deal with me until then.
But every day we're obviously taking concrete measures to prepare for the next President-elect, and we'll continue to do that. And that meeting was helpful in crystallizing where we were and what the gaps were and what we need to fill in.
Q Jake, a NAFTA panel apparently has ruled in favor of Mexico on the trucking dispute between the U.S. and Mexico. Do you know whether the administration might try to overturn -- get that reversed?
MR. SIEWERT: I'll check. I just saw that report before I came out here and I don't have anything on that yet.
Q Jake, what's your reaction to a report today saying that Medicare, as a result of higher health care spending, may run out of money sooner than you've projected?
MR. SIEWERT: We believe that our projections on solvency are solid; they're actually very conservative. So while we saw that report -- and, obviously, there's been some renewed inflation in the Medicare sector, what the report indicates, regardless of projections in out-year growth, is that the Medicare trustee projections that we've made about solvency continues to be very strong.
As you know, when we came into office, the trust fund was scheduled to bankrupt in '99; now, it's in much better shape than it's been in over the last quarter century or so. So I mean, I think we can argue about some of the specific projections in there, but that's the job of the Medicare trustees, and they'll be updating their report next year.
Q You're trying to get more money for Medicare providers as part of the final legislative session. Does that undermine that argument for more spending on Medicare?
MR. SIEWERT: No. In fact, I think one of the arguments we've made for more spending is that you have a more stable market in some ways, and that as survivors get squeezed, more and more are going to try to drop out of the Medicare program or find ways around it. What we want is a stable market so that seniors can get the quality health care they need. And that's what the whole point of increased payments are.
Q Prime Minister Barak, in a speech today, suggested an interim peace deal that would leave Jerusalem aside and the question of refugees aside, but would allow the Palestinians to declare a state and take some other measures that they have been trying to negotiate over. What is the overall assessment of that idea from the administration?
MR. SIEWERT: Well, we'll support any agreement that the two parties can agree to, and we're prepared to help them resolve their differences and help them reach any agreement. I think throughout the process, we've tried to play the rule of the facilitator, and that was what we tried to do at Camp David. But one of the ways in which we've done that is not to weigh in publicly on what we think of each individual proposal that each side has floated. But we will support anything the two parties can agree upon.
Q Is it true that in ongoing conversations since Sharm el-Sheikh, that's one of the questions the administration has put to both sides -- could we possibly work something out that would set aside Jerusalem? Any progress on that front?
MR. SIEWERT: For good reasons, we've tried to -- studiously avoided making comments on the individual proposals that have leaked out and been reported on, just because we don't think there's much utility in that at this point. What's important is that the two sides work through their differences and come up with an agreement themselves, and we're prepared to do anything we can to help.
Q Jake, you referred to heavy tactics in Florida. Were you including in that the indoor demonstration that was allegedly organized by the Republicans?
MR. SIEWERT: I'm not singling any particular demonstration out. Certainly, people have a right to make their views know. There's just been a lot of -- there have been some lawmakers complaining of undue pressure recently, and there are some detailed stories about that in The Washington Post today that seemed a bit over the top. But I'm not trying to single any one particular person or group out.
Q And you're reflecting the President's sentiment there when you say --
MR. SIEWERT: Well, I think the President said that we ought to relax, take a deep breath, let the court solve this, and these are matters that are before the courts and should be resolved by the courts.
Q In yesterday's transition meeting was anything decided about the FBI getting a jump-start on background checks?
MR. SIEWERT: The FBI is -- we've talked to the Department of Justice, and that's a topic that came up, about how they could speed up that process, given the unusual situation, and it's something we're continuing to work on. There may be some things we can do that are pretty straightforward that could help speed up the process for either side, but we're still looking at that issue. We haven't reached any final conclusions.
Q It's unresolved?
MR. SIEWERT: It's unresolved, but there may be some simple things. As I've said before, a lot of this work can be done by the campaigns on their own. People can begin compiling on both sides, if they think they're slated for a job, compiling the information that will be necessary for such background checks. The forms are available on the web. So you can begin to compile that information. And as I reminded you yesterday, the background checks in our administration in '92, when we were taking over, actually really commenced in a serious fashion in January. Most of the work up until January, with one or two exceptions, was just done by the parties that were slated for jobs, gathering information themselves. The actual hard field investigations commenced in earnest in January, although there were some that began in December.
Q In retrospect, wasn't it concluded that it would have been better for many involved to have begun that process earlier?
MR. SIEWERT: Oh, absolutely. We encourage people to get going early. But that's something, again, that either campaign can decide now, by giving people a sense of what their jobs will be, and encouraging them to gather that information. There are a lot of people around here who either didn't know that they were going to have a job, or didn't gather the information in time to get those background checks done. And we lived to regret it.
Q Jake, do you expect the Clintons to spend Christmas and New Year's here or at Camp David, as opposed to someplace else like Chappaqua or Renaissance or --
MR. SIEWERT: I don't know. I know they have a lot of holiday activities planned at the White House, and the President has said that he would like to spend a lot of time at the White House, since it's his last couple months here. But I don't know specifically on Christmas Day or New Year's whether he'll be -- whether they've made a final decision. But I'll let you know.
Q Are they doing Renaissance Weekend this year?
MR. SIEWERT: I don't know, but I'll check.
All right. Thank you.
END 11:54 A.M. EST