THE WHITE HOUSE
Office of the Press Secretary
PRESS BRIEFING BY JAKE SIEWERT The James S. Brady Briefing Room
1:20 P.M. EST
MR. SIEWERT: Two quick -- I don't know about announcements, but I was asked by a number of you whether, and which meetings were happening today regarding transition. At 10:00 a.m. this morning, Mark Lindsay and Maria Echaveste, the head of administration and the deputy chief of staff, who is charged with coordinating transition matters here, met with their counterparts from the President-elect's team here at the White House. At 11:00 a.m. this morning we held a transition council meeting, that's an internal group that was created by executive order to review the status of our preparations for the transition.
At the same time, the First Lady, as you saw, met with Laura Bush. And this afternoon, Sandy Berger will be meeting with Condi Rice, who President-elect Bush has designated as his National Security Advisor.
That is the sum total of the meetings that are expected today. As you know, the President has invited President-elect Bush tomorrow to come by; we expect him here around mid-day. They'll be meeting one-on-one, probably in the Oval Office, and then again in the --
Q What is mid-day?
MR. SIEWERT: Eleven-thirty, I think he's expected to arrive. He'll probably be here for about an hour and a half.
Q Is that going to be a lunch?
MR. SIEWERT: I think they will have a short meeting in the Oval Office, maybe with their chiefs of staff. And then after that, they'll have lunch in the Residence. And we are working to make some part of that trip available to the press, open to the press, so that you can --
Q What is the meeting all about? Is the President going to tell them all the secret documents he's signed and directives and future --
MR. SIEWERT: Well, if they were secret, I certainly wouldn't be discussing them here. But the President will -- he'll run through, obviously, what he has learned in the last eight years; but, more importantly, what challenges face the new administration, particularly around the world.
I expect the primary focus of that meeting to be on national security matters and the importance of some of the outstanding challenges that we're looking at and working on today.
There will obviously be discussion about how we can best facilitate the transition and make sure that they have all the tools they need to complete that transition in as most effective way possible. John Podesta will meet separately, with his counterpart, Andy Card, to run through the status of those preparations, what we can do to help.
Q Is he going to ask the President-elect's permission to go to Korea?
MR. SIEWERT: No, certainly not. We will make an assessment on whether or not to travel to North Korea before the holiday, sometime before the Christmas holiday. The President will make that decision based on the national interests and his assessment of the usefulness of such a trip.
We have been consulting with --
Q This week -- it's got to be this week, right?
MR. SIEWERT: Yes, this week, probably -- before next Monday. And I think the President will make that assessment based on -- make that decision based on his own assessment of whether a trip will be useful in advancing America's national interests.
We're consulting and have been consulting with the President-elect's team on this and those consultations will continue. I would be surprised if it didn't' come up this afternoon, when Sandy Berger meets with his counterpart. I imagine the President will discuss this tomorrow. But our decision will be made based on our own assessment of America's national interests.
Q Jake, one of the key campaign promises that George Bush ran on during his campaign was his pledge to restore honor and dignity to the Oval Office. Do you think the President will be asking what he meant by that?
MR. SIEWERT: I doubt it. I don't think that would come up. He'll probably ask them whether -- plan to bring that up, but I expect this to be a cordial meeting that will be focused on national security and focused on the importance of an effective transition. I think everyone has been getting along, cooperating well to date, and I expect that will continue.
Q And there will be coverage of this --
MR. SIEWERT: Yes, we've suggested and have recommended, I think, waiting to hear back finally, but I think that the idea is to have this meeting -- at least the Oval Office meeting available to the pool, so that we have some sort of opportunity -- you have some sort of opportunity to see them.
Q -- sign the papers yet, with the transition team, so that you can --
MR. SIEWERT: There are two separate memorandums of understanding. One has been signed, that is the memorandum between the President-elect's team and the Attorney General, which enables the background checks to go forward. The other one should be signed today, which is one that governs a broader array of issues. That should be signed this afternoon sometime, by Chief of Staff John Podesta and Andy Card, his counterpart.
Q And that means he can start -- they can start getting --
MR. SIEWERT: That establishes contact points between the agencies and the transition team, so that that work can go forward.
Q Is the President buying a new house?
MR. SIEWERT: He is interested in buying a new house --
Q In Washington?
MR. SIEWERT: -- and they have been looking at some places in the area.
Q Four million dollars?
MR. SIEWERT: Well, I don't have any particular news for you on that. But I think that the President -- Mrs. Clinton obviously needs a place to hang her hat here in Washington, and we will be letting you know as that search for a house develops.
Q They're going to focus on a house to buy or rent?
MR. SIEWERT: I actually don't know whether there's one particular place that -- I saw the story, too. I don't know if there's one particular place that has emerged as the front runner yet, but I'll let you know when I know more.
Q But there's no deal yet?
MR. SIEWERT: As far as I know, there has not been a deal. But, obviously, this could move along pretty quickly. I'll let you know if there are any new developments.
Q Along the same line, Powell the other day, he said that the national missile defense would be an important priority of theirs. Does that change any of the calculations or any decision making for this White House, preparing for that White House to go forward with the NMD?
MR. SIEWERT: I think the President has spoken to that. He's essentially addressed the issue this past fall, in the speech he gave at Georgetown. And I don't expect that we'll have anything new to say on that before we -- before the end of the term. Although, obviously, the President and his team have been in consultations with the South Koreans and North Koreans about how best we proceed on the offer that the North Koreans have put on the table. Whether that plays into or doesn't play into the debate about NMD is something that the next administration will have to judge.
Q But at this point, there's no decisions on President Clinton's table for the next few weeks that would in any affect Bush's decision to go forward with NMD?
MR. SIEWERT: Not that I'm aware of, no.
Q Jake, Powell also said that a review of troop performance in the Balkans would be part of an overall global review. Would the President be expected tomorrow to make the case to the President-elect on the need to retain U.S. troops in the Balkans?
MR. SIEWERT: Well, we believe that -- it's no secret, we believe that the U.S. presence in Kosovo and in Bosnia is critical to ensuring a more stable transition back to -- to both those countries; and that U.S. troops have been critical in helping keep the peace there and keeping the temperature low.
That mission is one that President Clinton believes is absolutely critical, but we recognize that a future administration will make their own decisions about that. But it's something, obviously, the President thinks has been helpful in restoring some stability to southeastern Europe and it's one that he believes has been important. American troops have done a terrific job there in helping maintain some stability and bringing some peace to a country that has been torn about.
Q Well, is he concerned?
Q The house thing again. The Washington Times is reporting today that the Clintons are putting up their Chappaqua home for sale. Is that true?
MR. SIEWERT: That is not true; not true. I've addressed that a couple of different times, I don't have anything new to say, other than that they plan to keep the house. They're still redecorating it, and as I've said before, that is an ongoing process, not one that many people undertake before they sell.
Q Jake, on the Middle East, is there any serious belief the parties would reach any agreement with such transition, both here and in Israel?
MR. SIEWERT: Excuse me?
Q On the Middle East, is there --
MR. SIEWERT: On the mid-East, we have discussions this week in Washington underway. The United States will be hosting discussions, talking to both the Israelis and the Palestinians. I believe they're due in tomorrow sometime for those talks, and Dennis Ross will be working with both Mr. Erekat and Mr. Ben Ami on how we take the next steps forward to help ensure more peaceful state of play on the ground and how we can move closer to some sort of agreement.
Q Well, what incentive is there for them to reach any sort of peace accord, with this administration leaving and the Israelis --
MR. SIEWERT: That's up to them. That's a question that's best addressed by the Palestinians and the Israelis. We're working with a time table that they've set; we can only move forward if there's consensus between those two parties. But if they are willing to move forward, if they think it's useful to move forward, we are ready to help. The President said that in the Oval Office today.
Q Is the President leaving town tonight and coming back early in the morning, is that it?
MR. SIEWERT: Yes. He is leaving to New York this afternoon. He has a dinner at Ambassador Holbrooke's residence there, in honor of Mrs. Clinton. And he'll be back pretty early tomorrow morning, around 10:30 a.m. or so.
Q And Christmas will be here?
MR. SIEWERT: I expect that they will be in Washington for Christmas. We'll let you know more about the details of their holiday plans when we get a little bit closer to the end of the week.
Q Jake, Nawaz Sharif is free man in Saudi Arabia. If and what role President may have played for his release and also, U.K. have opened the door for him to come there -- if the U.S. doors are open for him to come to the United States?
MR. SIEWERT: Well, the President obviously pressed General Musharraff when we were in Pakistan about the importance of doing something to alleviate the situation that Mr. Sharif was in. And that was something that we've pressed at all levels. So in the sense -- in that sense, we welcome the move by them to provide him with a new place to go. I don't know of any statements we've made about the United States as a haven for Mr. Sharif.
MR. CROWLEY: -- in touch with Pakistan, Saudi Arabia and the Sharif family, and welcome the resolution. We have no information about Mr. Sharif's travel plans.
Q -- to Pakistan, until his release. Did President -- in his case directly or indirectly with the Pakistan --
MR. SIEWERT: Oh, certainly indirectly through Ambassador Indefurth and others, we have been pressing the case that it is important to find a resolution to that dilemma. We raised our objections to the way in which his trial went forward, and obviously we welcome the move to resolve this now.
Q Jake, what time is the Berger-Rice meeting scheduled for?
MR. SIEWERT: Approximately 2:30 p.m.
Q Jake, on today's meetings, is the President prepared to agree to tighter regulations of GMOs?
MR. SIEWERT: I expect that topic will come up, but I don't believe that we are prepared to announce anything new at this point. It is something we've been discussing with the Europeans for some time now, along with a variety of other trade issues that are before the countries. I expect also the disputes over beef and bananas will come up. Those are issues that have just been unresolved for much too long, and something we'd like to wrap up before the new administration has to deal with them.
Q Will you do a readout on that briefing?
MR. SIEWERT: Yes, we'll find some way. The lunch should be ending any minute now, and we'll provide some way of giving you -- I think Tony Blinken and others will be down here on background -- so now that you know who they are -- to summarize the state of those meetings.
Q Jake, what does the President think of the First Lady's enormous book deal?
MR. SIEWERT: He's pleased by it.
Q Does he have a --
MR. SIEWERT: No, I think, obviously, everyone wants their spouse to do as well as possible, and the President is no exception to that rule.
Q Did he get the same deal?
MR. SIEWERT: No. I know he has said, several times, that he plans to write a book or two when he leaves office, but I don't believe that he has made any sort of deal.
Q Better get them well they're hot. Don't wait too long. (Laughter.)
Q Jake, when Newt Gingrich accepted a $4.5 million book deal, roughly half of the size of Mrs. Clinton's, there was such pressure put upon him that he eventually declined to accept it. Do you see these two situations --
MR. SIEWERT: I believe that was governed by some particular rules in the House -- the House Ethics Committee -- that had some -- that he ran afoul of the rules that were governing book contracts by House members. I think that was the main thrust of the complaint people had with him. There was also some question about whether his story was really worth $4.5 million. (Laughter.) Whereas no one doubts that Mrs. Clinton's story is worth any amount of money.
Q His was a validly fiction -- (Laughter.)
MR. SIEWERT: It will be interesting to go back a look and see how Mr. Gingrich's book eventually sold and see whether it was, indeed, netted the publishing company $4.5 million. I don't believe it did. And we'll see how this one goes.
Q Jake, tomorrow when the President meets with President-elect George Bush, do you expect that he might introduce him to this White House corps here on this podium?
MR. SIEWERT: No, I wouldn't expect that. We may get a chance to meet some of you in the Oval Office, but I don't think we'll come down. This is probably best kept secret for him now. He may be disappointed when he sees the shabby state of repair that it's in at the moment.
Q Jake, the Congress late last week passed a small stand-alone tax bill having to do with accounting measures for small businesses, tax relief for small businesses. Does he have plans to sign that bill?
MR. SIEWERT: I'll check. It's separate from the omnibus bill? I'll check, I have no idea. We obviously welcome the passage of the New Markets bill, which the President pressed for for some time, and we particularly want to thank Speaker Hastert for his hard work in making that happen.
Q Plans to sign that bill?
MR. SIEWERT: Later this week. I think the CR expires on Thursday, which probably gives us until Friday sometime to actually sign the new bill. But we'll let you know as plans develop.
Q How alarming does the White House, President Clinton view the new CIA threat assessment report?
MR. SIEWERT: I think that, in general, that report is very thoughtful and follows something that the President outlined last week in his speech in England, which is to look at national security not just in the context of the old-fashioned Cold War approach, but to look at it in a way that's more comprehensive and integrated.
So the President said last week in England that it's important to assess not just national security in terms of weapons, but also in terms of longer-term trends: climate change, infectious diseases all play a role in national security these days, which is why we've tried to treat them and elevate them on a different level.
So we think those trends that we're studying for a new administration, they're obviously -- the President has made no secret of the fact that he thinks both the spread of infectious diseases -- TB, malaria, AIDS -- and the problem of climate change are ones that should, and demand, immediate action. And those are trends that need assessing from a future administration. We hope they'll take a look at it.
Q The report also paints a very ominous picture of the next several years, in terms of biological weapons, chemical weapons, that level of threat. How concerned is the White House about that, and do they agree with the assessment?
MR. SIEWERT: I'll have to check on the particulars of whether we agree with this particular assessment. But that's something that we obviously have devoted an enormous amount of attention to here. We have a unit within the NSC now that deals with trans-national threats, that deals with the problems of biological and chemical warfare, and it's something the President has addressed a number of different times.
Q The report also says that the United States would maintain its preeminent role in the world through 2050. It's not as ominous as --
Q Do you accept any major foreign policy change from the new administration?
MR. SIEWERT: Well, I think that best put to them. We are obviously in a position to state what our own national security priorities are, in our last 33, 34 days, however you count it. But I think you should ask them whether they plan to change in any way the direction we've taken.
Q What are the President's priorities until January 20, in terms of his work?
MR. SIEWERT: Well, he's very pleased that we wrapped up Congress -- this session of Congress in the way we did. We actually, despite a very partisan atmosphere, we were able to work together to achieve a lot of progress, particularly on trade, and on education. We passed the Africa bill, the trade bill, which is a very important piece of legislation that should put our relations with Africa on a new footing, one that stresses trade and aid, but puts a new emphasis on helping emerging economies strengthen there.
We also passed the China trade bill, which is one of the most significant pieces of legislation we've seen in our eight years here. We also were able to eliminate the earnings test on Social Security.
And the final budget deal was enormously important. It put a new priority on education, one that culminates eight years of dedication the President had to that. But this is a really dramatic increase in the federal role in education across the board. We passed the New Markets legislation, which was important. We also were able to work together, in a bipartisan way, on debt relief for third world nations.
So he thought the congressional year, while it could have been more productive, was enormously important. And having wrapped that up, I think the President will focus a bit on what he can do now, through his own executive power, to complete some of the work that's been going on over the last couple years, work that we're undertaking -- I don't think it's any secret -- to protect the environment, to protect the safety and privacy of Americans. I think he'll obviously remain focused, as he said, on some of the areas around the world that have been at the center of his own activity for the last year or so.
He's still very focused on the mid-East. He spoke to Chairman Arafat a couple days ago, and looking forward to maybe seeing the negotiators when they're here in town. And he's going to obviously make an assessment on whether or not it makes sense to go forward with a trip to North Korea. But we also think that there's a lot of valuable work that's been done on that over the last several months. And we're going to stay on top of that. And I think he'll have a little time, also, to spend with his family, over the holidays, and enjoy his remaining days at the White House.
And he also wants to thank the staff, all of us, for having done a terrific job. (Laughter.)
Q Is he doing Renaissance Weekend this year?
MR. SIEWERT: I'll double check, but I have not heard any talk of that. I expect he'll be in Washington and its environs for the holidays.
Q What about the real millennium? Is he going to celebrate that?
MR. SIEWERT: I will be celebrating it. Where are you going to be, Mark?
Q Oh, I'll be there. (Laughter.)
MR. SIEWERT: Okay.
THE PRESS: Thank you.
END 1:40 P.M. EST