THE WHITE HOUSE
Office of the Press Secretary
PRESS BRIEFING BY JAKE SIEWERT The James S. Brady Press Briefing Room
11:40 A.M. EST
MR. SIEWERT: We'll try to wrap this up quickly. I don't have much for you. I will tell you that the President will have some announcements later today on pardons, grants of clemency. I don't have those for you right this minute, but we're working to get those done so that you can write that story and go home.
Q Anyone we know?
MR. SIEWERT: There might be a name or two that you know. I'm not going to get into specific names up here. We'll provide those later. But any of you who want a general sense of where we're headed on that should feel free to consult with me afterwards.
As you know, the President has broad powers to grant pardons, granted by the Constitution. He's exercised that with a great deal of restraint. We've actually issued fewer of those than most Presidents in recent history. But as his term winds down he's promised to take a hard look at some of these cases. In the past, we've actually looked at a number of different cases where there are mandatory minimums that have been unduly harsh and there may be one or two cases like that today, particularly in cases where the person was involved in typically a nonviolent drug conviction, was not directly involved in the crime itself, and oftentimes other folks in the offense were treated less severely. But in any case, we have a number of those later today. I expect the vast --
Q On paper or personally?
MR. SIEWERT: We'll put them out on paper, but we'll do whatever we can to help fill in the blanks, help you understand some of the background about them. We don't typically comment on the wheres and whys of this, but we'll help you understand a little bit about who these people are and what the general nature of their case was.
Q In the past the President is on record in various interviews as saying that he wasn't comfortable with the nonviolent crimes for crack -- for instance, 90 percent, or 95 are African Americans and they get a harsher penalty than other people who are using various forms of cocaine. Might we see some kind of a blanket use of the clemency today?
MR. SIEWERT: No. I think what we are trying to do is take these cases on a case-by-case basis. Some of them have worked their way through the system; the President has addressed some of these cases where a mandatory minimum caught someone in a much deeper prison sentence than some of the people that were involved in that very same offense.
So we're looking at some of those cases. We may have one or two like that today. But I think we'll review them on a case-by-case basis. It's very important that as we review these cases we know the details of the offenses and the actual facts of the case. So the Counsel's Office here at the White House, working and consulting with the Office of the Pardon Attorney at the Department of Justice tries to gather all the facts and make these judgments on the merits of the individual case.
Q Do any involve deaths, or any death penalties involved?
MR. SIEWERT: I wouldn't expect anything like that today.
Q Jake, do we need to go over to Justice to get these, or will you give them out?
MR. SIEWERT: The paper is put out at the Department of Justice, but we will get copies here and make them available. And Elliot, Nanda and Sarah and I will do everything we can to fill in the blanks, let you understand a little bit of the background of these cases.
Q What do you think of the Ashcroft nomination?
MR. SIEWERT: We haven't been commenting on the individual Cabinet choices that the President-elect has made, and I don't think we'll start today.
Q Jake, just to follow up on what John was asking, does the President believe the laws, the statues need to be changed on mandatory minimums, or is it just that there are some isolated cases where they were unfair, or is there a systemic problem?
MR. SIEWERT: No, we have actually suggested some changes, particularly on the disparity case we suggested some changes. We supported a provision that would have reduced the disparity. And we've also tried to direct prosecutorial resources at the federal level toward serious crack cocaine and powder cocaine dealers and try to keep the focus off lower-level offenders.
But as we review individual cases we have to look at the facts of the individual case and see whether that particular person deserves clemency. So the President does think -- he said in a recent interview that he thinks that this whole issue needs some review, and we've tried to find a more just solution in cases where there is some injustice under the current guidelines. But he's asked for some change in the disparity between crack and powder cocaine, but ultimately, Congress has to make these decisions about sentencing guidelines.
Q Do you have a comment on a Washington Times story that the Pakistani army is fighting in Afghanistan, side by side with Osama bin Laden who is training all these armies in Afghanistan? And how can you bring Osama bin Laden to justice in this country where he is facing trial if the Pakistani army is supporting him, or they are supporting each other?
MR. SIEWERT: I hadn't seen that particular report. I do know that we worked very hard this week with the Russians at the U.N. to tighten the sanction regime against the Taliban, and we're doing everything we can to urge them to help turn Osama bin Laden over to be brought to justice and to close the terrorist camps. And that was a really unique and unparalleled effort to work with the Russian government and the rest of the Security Council to tighten up the sanctions regime so that we can begin to close down those camps and improve the way in which the Taliban treats its own people and begin to bring Osama bin Laden to justice.
Q Are you expecting a breakthrough on the Middle East?
MR. SIEWERT: We're not expecting anything other than that the parties work together over the next day or two. Secretary Albright has joined, or is joining the parties at Bolling Air Base today. The President met with them earlier this week, and we're going to keep at it, urge them to do everything they can to narrow some of their differences. But we're not going to provide -- I was saying to PJ before we came out I've seen stories saying that they were making progress, and that they were in crisis. But we're not going to provide a running commentary on this.
Q You have an outlook, don't you?
MR. SIEWERT: Certainly we hope that the parties redouble their efforts and do everything they can to help find a way to end the violence and to narrow their differences. The President is ready and willing to help, if that's necessary. But today, the Secretary of State is there and is engaged in the talks and we hope that we can help today bring the parties a little bit closer together.
Q Jake, there was also a story that they almost -- a fight broke out among the negotiators. Is that your understanding?
MR. SIEWERT: I have no independent knowledge of that. But as I said, I'm not going to provide running commentary on what happens there. Those of you who were at Sharm el-Sheikh will remember, there were a number of stories that proved to be absolutely untrue and without any foundation in reality. So I just urge you to be cautious when reporting on --
Q Is Sandy going to the Middle East?
MR. SIEWERT: We don't have anything to announce today, at all. We are taking this day by day. We are working with the parties today at Bolling Air Base and we don't have any plans beyond today.
Q Well, that's a possibility?
MR. SIEWERT: There's not -- we're not ruling anything out entirely, but our focus is on what can happen today, what happens on the ground of the Air Base today. They're supposed to meet tomorrow, those talks will continue through Saturday. As I told some of you earlier in the day, we haven't ruled out the President will meet with them, if that is effective or if that's necessary. But we haven't scheduled such a meeting, either. And then when the talks wrap up, we'll make judgments about what to do next. But I wouldn't presume that we've planned anything at all.
Q That meeting would be tomorrow at the earliest, correct?
MR. SIEWERT: The President has no plans today to get involved in these discussions. The Secretary of State is deeply engaged today and that's where the action is.
Q Why was the Secretary of State's visit yesterday there called off? And is there an end date by which one side or the other says they need to go home for one reason or another?
MR. SIEWERT: I believe they're planning on talking through tomorrow and that's it. But yesterday there was actually a lot of discussions on the Air Base -- Dennis Ross was involved, there were bilateral meetings, trilateral meetings and direct talks amongst the parties themselves, all of which suggests a level of work and effort that we think is important. But the Secretary of State is there today and we'll keep you updated, as we can, on the progress of the talks there today.
Q Is the President going to stay put all through Christmas?
MR. SIEWERT: Strictly speaking, there is no real week ahead, but the President will obviously be in Washington through, at least through next Wednesday or Thursday. He doesn't have any plans to go anywhere, other than around and about town.
Q Since this is your last briefing before Christmas, can you declare a lid on Christmas?
MR. SIEWERT: We're working on that. Do we have a definitive one. We're doing our best. There is always the issue of church, but we're working on that -- midnight Christmas golf is off limits. (Laughter.) I hereby decree the President will not play golf at midnight on Christmas.
MR. SIEWERT: Christmas shopping could happen at any time, even today. On-line, off-line, in person, via modem --
Q Jake, does the United States have any plans to offer an apology or any kind of statement of regret or contrition for the events at No Gun Ri during the Korean War?
MR. SIEWERT: I know that the Department of Defense -- have they wrapped up their talks with the South Koreans?
MR. CROWLEY: I think we have wrapped up the talks at the Pentagon this week. There will be further contacts with South Korea as early as next week. We haven't really finished the report yet, so it's premature to talk about what actually will do.
Q So no decision yet?
MR. SIEWERT: No decision yet --
Q But you're not ruling out an apology?
MR. CROWLEY: I don't think we're going to talk publicly yet about what we're prepared to do.
MR. SIEWERT: PJ is explaining whether -- I won't even say it. (Laughter.) Apparently, we're not allowed to say on the record what some people in the administration have been saying, in other capacities.
Q Question again on the Middle East. What's more likely, an envoy to go to the region, or for the leaders, perhaps the principals to come here?
MR. SIEWERT: Oh, I'm not going to --
Q And why was Sandy Berger named as the probable envoy on these stories? Is that a float by the negotiators and is there a problem with Madeleine Albright?
MR. CROWLEY: Speculative piece by the Washington Post.
MR. SIEWERT: Sometimes, Sandy just likes to see his name in print, even if there's nothing new. No, I don't think there is anything there that is --
MR. CROWLEY: Thanks, Jake. (Laughter.)
MR. SIEWERT: That never would have happened under the Leavy regime. (Laughter.)
I don't think there's much to that story other than we haven't ruled out any possibilities going forward. The President, himself, didn't rule out anything when he was asked about this not long ago in an interview. So we're willing to do what is necessary, but ultimately it's up to the parties to decide whether they're willing to talk to each other and to begin to bridge and narrow their differences.
MR. CROWLEY: No decisions on next steps --
MR. SIEWERT: Yes, but we don't have any decisions. I won't expect any before these discussions in Washington wrap up.
Q A different question on pardons. You said you traditionally haven't issued as many as other people. Why is that? Is it because he's had so many investigations that politically it would have been a problem?
MR. SIEWERT: I don't know that there's any particular reason for that. There's obviously -- this is something that I think all Presidents have used with a great deal of caution and discretion. But just looking at the numbers, I don't know that there's any particular reason for it. It's pretty evident the President has used this discretion with a great deal of restraint.
But at the same time, the President believes, as he said in a recent interview, the President believes that from time to time, it's important to allow people to get a fresh start, to move on with their lives, to assume the full rights of citizenship, and when it is appropriate he has not hesitated to do that.
Q How many are there?
MR. SIEWERT: More than a dozen, and less than a hundred. But as I said -- I should caution you that I wouldn't read -- as I said yesterday, I would not assume that this is the definitive list. What we're trying to do is assess these on a rolling basis. We will make some judgments today and put out that list, but there may be more. He has asked his Counsel's Office to work with the Department of Justice to take a full look at these cases as they come up, and there may be more in the next month.
Q Any blockbusters?
MR. SIEWERT: Well, that is hard -- that is absolutely impossible to say.
Q Big names?
Q If you're in jail and you get out I guess that would be a blockbuster for you.
MR. SIEWERT: Yes, sir?
Q I want to take the flip side of Eilene's question. Has the President's experience at the hands of various investigators from the criminal branch of the government sensitized him to the plight of people that have faced unfairness in the criminal justice system?
MR. SIEWERT: I don't know. I'll ask him that. I mean, he's made his views pretty well-known about the ways in which some investigations have simply gone on too long. He's talked very bluntly about Whitewater and how what began as a relatively inconsequential deal spun out of control and assumed much larger proportions than anyone originally intended. So he understands how that can happen. But I don't know that that affects his judgment of any particular case. He obviously makes a decision on each case on the merits.
Q Any estimate on what time we'll get the --
MR. SIEWERT: As fast as I can make them happen. So I will -- I'm working with the Counsel's Office to -- as fast as John Podesta can make them happen.
Q Jake, does the President plan to attach the new license plates himself?
MR. SIEWERT: No. But since I haven't had a chance to do this on camera, the President -- we did ask Mr. Knoller and Mark Plotkin and others have asked us a couple of times to ask the President, and we finally got into see him and asked him whether he'd like these new plates, and he thought the slogan, "Taxation Without Representation," was a fine one. So he's asked the administration here to do that. And I expect they'll be on, if not today, then at the very earliest, next week.
But he's not going down to the DMV himself, nor do I think he will get out the screwdriver. But we'll make sure they're on, and at some point we'll make sure you get a chance to take a photograph of the new plates.
Q Do you have anything to announce about the President's -- of a possible visit to North Korea?
MR. SIEWERT: I do not have anything to announce on that today. We're obviously continuing to work on the range of issues that are associated with North Korea, but I actually would not expect an announcement anytime before early next week. Why don't you check back with us after the vacation and we'll let you know where we stand on that.
Q Is the President sensitive to concerns that he might, by going to North Korea and working some kind of a deal out, signing something, tie the hands of the President-elect?
MR. SIEWERT: No. I mean, we're obviously consulting very closely with the President-elect, but in the end this decision will be made on the merits -- whether we think it advances in some way, shape or form our agenda to make the Peninsula a safer place, and to lower the threat from the missile program that North Korea has developed. So we will make a judgment based on whether we think it would be effective in advancing our national security interests. And that's the only criteria that we will examine as the President makes decisions about how to proceed with the North Koreans.
Q He won't really go unless he can get some sort of an agreement.
MR. SIEWERT: We will proceed based on his assessment of what makes sense for our national interest. And we've consulted heavily with the President-elect team and let them know what we're thinking and what we're doing.
Q They don't have a veto, though, do they?
MR. SIEWERT: No, absolutely not.
Q So, Jake, time is running out -- you don't have a sort of deadline by the end of this year for whether or he goes or not, to decide?
MR. SIEWERT: Well, we understand that there's a limited period of time to work on this, which is why we're doing everything we can. But ultimately, this has to be driven by the substance of what we're discussing with the North Koreans and others, and we have to make a judgment about whether it will actually make a difference and make an improvement in our national security outlook overall.
Q Do you think the decision to switch the license plates should be seen as one in a series of actions the President is taking to try to tie the hands of the incoming President? (Laughter.)
MR. SIEWERT: This is a decision that's made on the President's own views about D.C. and its statehood. But, obviously, we're not tying the hands of anyone. Screwdrivers are a dime a dozen.
Q Doesn't this force the President-elect to take the plates off, then?
MR. SIEWERT: I actually don't know that. Someone asked me, but the presidential plates are changed in any case for the inaugural. They put on the inaugural plate for the inauguration, for those of you who remember one or two of those ceremonies. And then I assume the new President can make his own decision about whether he likes this plate. But it's a nice slogan -- "Taxation Without Representation." It's one that has served this country well over time.
Q Is the President going to spend time here in D.C., when he said in that interview the other week, or a few days ago that he'd have this office for six months in D.C. -- is he planning to spend a substantial amount of time here?
MR. SIEWERT: I don't know how much time he'll spend in the office, but obviously -- but there is an office that's set up --
Q What does that do, what does that office do, exactly?
MR. SIEWERT: I think it handles a lot of the paperwork and correspondence around.
Q Where is it located? Jackson Place?
MR. SIEWERT: Nearby. Nearby.
Q Jackson Place? The Federal Building?
MR. SIEWERT: Maybe. I don't know. I'll check. I think it's nearby, but essentially, this is much more of a clerical operation than anything else. I think he has said his main office will be in New York, and he is looking at some options for New York now.
Q Does that mean that the President is not leaving the city after the inauguration of the next President?
MR. SIEWERT: Oh, we've actually been -- no, we're leaving. We're leaving.
Q Where is he going?
MR. SIEWERT: I don't know. (Laughter.) I don't know. We'll try to sort that out. We've actually had a little discussion about that, but we haven't made a final decision.
Q But he will get out of town, right?
MR. SIEWERT: Yes, we'll get in that helicopter and --
Q Bethesda. (Laughter.)
Q Do you have any New Year's Eve plans?
MR. SIEWERT: Not yet. There's been some discussion maybe of going to Camp David, but I don't know whether that's --
Q Why is he skipping Renaissance Weekend? That's very unusual.
MR. SIEWERT: Well, he enjoys Renaissance Weekend, but as you know, last year we didn't make it because of the Millennium, and this year I think he wants to cherish his time here at the White House.
Q It's really the Millennium this year, you know. (Laughter.)
MR. SIEWERT: Yes, I know. I'm well aware of your own views on that.
Q It's your Naval Observatory. Go check the clock.
MR. SIEWERT: Yes -- I don't get up there much, too many protesters. (Laughter.)
Q They're gone.
MR. SIEWERT: But I think he wants to spend some time, he and Mrs. Clinton and Chelsea want to spend some time here at the White House while they still live here.
Q Could you please give a brief assessment of the policy and concern of this administration on amnesty, and also -- there are so many cases of asylum seekers that have been in jail for many, many years, but no decisions on those asylum cases --
MR. SIEWERT: I don't know anything about that. I thought you were going to ask me about Sandy Berger's call to Mr. Mishra.
Q Also. (Laughter.)
MR. SIEWERT: Okay, that --
Q Leading the witness. (Laughter.)
MR. SIEWERT: As part of his periodic contacts with his Indian counterpart, Mr. Berger called the National Security Advisor, Mr. Mishra, this morning to pass on the President's appreciation for Prime Minister Vajpayee's efforts to ease tensions over Kashmir, most notably, the extension of the Ramadan cease-fire through January. They also discussed the efforts by both sides to broaden and deepen the U.S.-India relationship and express the hope the relationship will continue to grow in the years ahead.
Q Are you expecting any presidential call to the Prime Minister in India, or anybody in Pakistan?
MR. SIEWERT: I'm not aware of any further calls planned at this moment. But we, obviously, have expressed through various channels our appreciation to both sides, their efforts to reduce tension in the region. It's been a bright spot in recent days.
Thank you all and have a happy holiday. We'll try to get that work done, so that you can all go home.
END 12:03 P.M. EST