THE WHITE HOUSE
Office of the Press Secretary
PRESS BRIEFING BY JAKE SIEWERT The James S. Brady Briefing Room
1:47 P.M. EST
MR. SIEWERT: Happy New Year. Mr. Plante, welcome back. There's some mail, by the way, for Sam Donaldson inside if he's available.
I have no announcements.
Q Were you watching your successor? Is that why you're late?
MR. SIEWERT: Yes. In fact, I wanted to catch the end of that before I came out here and then think about it for a little bit.
Q Well, how did he do?
MR. SIEWERT: He seemed to do fine. But you're a better judge of that than I am.
Q Said he got 42,000 resumes. He could count them, but he can't count the ballots. (Laughter.)
MR. SIEWERT: Wow. Make sure that's on the transcript. I have no comment on that. But we had a lot of interest, obviously, in working in this administration, but only a couple of us were lucky enough to end up with jobs here. I have --
Q Did you put your resume in?
MR. SIEWERT: No, I did not. No. In fact, I'm looking forward to retirement, although I was informed today that my pension won't kick in for a little while longer, so I may have to find gainful employment after this.
Q You need a pension?
MR. SIEWERT: Apparently, I need to spend a little more time working.
I have no announcements for you. I'll preempt the most obvious question by saying that we will have some sort of informal readout of the meeting with Chairman Arafat afterwards. I don't think, unfortunately, it will be for camera, but we'll try to make someone available to give you a rundown of what happened in the meeting afterwards.
Q Do you expect that he'll go to the stakeout position?
MR. SIEWERT: He usually does, so I don't see any reason why he wouldn't. But we obviously have let him know that is an option that's available to him.
Q Given the fact that Mr. Barak has said there's really little likelihood of getting a peace treaty before the election, what's your feeling about the success possibilities at this meeting today?
MR. SIEWERT: Well, obviously the President and Chairman Arafat decided that this was a meeting that was worthwhile to have, and the Chairman agreed to come here in the hopes that we could reach some sort of common understanding about the parameters of the negotiation if that were to take place. We have heard from the Israelis that they think that such a negotiation is worthwhile, and they think that they would be happy to sit down, but we're waiting to hear back on a final answer from the Palestinians.
In the interim, the President talked to both Chairman Arafat and the Prime Minister over the weekend, and as a result of that call with Chairman Arafat, they agreed that it would be useful to meet today and try to see whether we could come up with the general parameters, whether we could have a common understanding of the parameters that would guide such a negotiation.
The President told you all last week that he's had a chance to share some ideas about how we could have a fruitful negotiation, and we will obviously use the time remaining for us here to stress the importance of doing that. But ultimately, it's up to the parties to decide whether they want to sit down and talk.
Q What's the level of urgency?
MR. SIEWERT: Time is of the essence here. We have a relatively narrow window of opportunity, but the President has promised to work up to the last day, and there's no reason why these negotiations, if they commence, could not be successful. But ultimately, it's up to the parties to decide to sit down and to make the hard choices that are involved.
Q Is the President saying take it or leave it?
MR. SIEWERT: Well, the President told you last week that he didn't see any point in sitting down and having negotiations between the parties unless there was some understanding of what the parameters of such a discussion would be. And so he laid out his idea of what those guidelines should be.
Q Well, then, you have to accept his territorial parameters.
MR. SIEWERT: Well, there is -- look, there's a lot of negotiation to be done if they actually sit down. But the President has shared some ideas along with his team, with the Israelis and Palestinians, and he thinks that lays the groundwork for a discussion about how best to move forward. And both sides obviously, in any negotiation, have to give a little bit. But there is more to be discussed. What we're talking about today is whether we can come up with an understanding about the guidelines that would govern any such negotiation.
Q Has the White House seen the Palestinian critique of the peace plan, as they understand it, and what do you think about that?
MR. SIEWERT: I don't know that we've seen anything in particular. Obviously, we're in regular contact with the Palestinians. We know pretty well where they see things today, and that's part of what going to govern this discussion today.
Q Jake, is there any input from the incoming administration, either Colin Powell, Condoleezza Rice or George W. about the whole -- about their input to this?
MR. SIEWERT: Input, I don't know. I mean, we have been consulting with them on a pretty regular basis. And we appreciated the President-elect's support, expressed support last week for the way in which we've conducted these discussions. The President appreciates that kind of support, and we have been sharing with them the progress of the discussions, and what our own plans are.
But I don't know that we're in the business here of getting input from them. The President has obviously worked very hard on this. His advisors and team have spent a lot of time on the details of this negotiation. And I think we'll make our own decisions about how to proceed, but we appreciate the support that they expressed for the President's work on this, and effort on this.
Q Is the President optimistic?
MR. SIEWERT: I keep getting that question for some reason. The President is determined to work hard on this, and work up until the last day, to make this -- to give it his best shot, and to do everything we can with the window we have left to try to get these two sides back to the table. But, ultimately, it is up to the parties to decide, to make the hard choices.
Q Jake, with some of the Palestinian negotiators offering rhetoric in support of, or encouraging the Intifada, do you think it's still possible for the Israelis to be able to trust that they're going to have a deal that the Palestinians will keep?
MR. SIEWERT: Negotiations are very hard and there is always a lot of heated rhetoric around them. The Israelis have indicated that they want to sit down and try to hammer out some of these hard issues. These problems don't get any easier with time, and the President has said that they have never been closer to getting a final agreement on some of the toughest issues, some of the ones that involve compromise, and involve tough choices.
So the Israelis want to sit down and try to work these difficult issues through, and we are going to do everything we can to try to encourage both sides to sit down and resolve those issues. But ultimately, they have to make those decisions, but they want to sit down and talk and the President thinks both sides ought to seize this window of opportunity now to sit down and hammer out some of the hardest issues.
Q So the President really thinks that the Palestinians should compromise, and no refugees can return to their homes?
MR. SIEWERT: We are not going to get into the substance of the negotiations. What we think is that they ought to sit down and have an opportunity to talk through some of those differences.
Q Did the President relay to the Palestinians and the Israelis the idea that if they don't act before he leaves office, it may be a while before anything can happen?
MR. SIEWERT: Well, I think everyone is aware of the calendar and that there is a pretty narrow window in which to continue the work that we've undertaken with both parties over the last eight years. So I don't think anyone is under any illusion that we have about 18 days and counting to work through these tough issues, so I don't even know that that's a message that needs to be conveyed.
But everyone understands that there is a certain urgency to working these issues out, but at the same time the President said that he only thinks we should talk if we can agree on guidelines that would govern such a discussion.
Q Sorry, just to be clear about today's session, is the President looking for a yes from Chairman Arafat today? And if not, is the game up?
MR. SIEWERT: I don't think that we necessarily expect a final answer on whether he wants to sit down and discuss -- negotiate with the U.S. and the Israelis the final status issues; what we are expecting is that we both -- both sides can make a good-faith effort to understand what such a discussion would entail, and I think that there is no doubt that he may need to take a little time to consult before he makes a final decision. And we will be obviously in touch, as we have been throughout the process, with other leaders in the region, stressing the importance, stressing the narrow window of opportunity here.
Q Jake, the 18-day deadline sort of implies that the occupant of the White House is a critical function of whether or not a peace deal is struck in the Mideast. Does that imply that you're concerned that on January 21st, the peace talks stop because the new president comes in?
MR. SIEWERT: No, I think both sides have indicated an interest in working with the President. That's why Chairman Arafat is coming to town today, because he wants to talk to President Clinton about the work that they've done.
They've obviously developed relationships, working relationships, over the last several years. And so I think the parties ultimately have to make these decisions about whether they want to negotiate, whether they want to work through these issues, and they have indicated that they would like to work with President Clinton and try to resolve some of the hardest, toughest issues which remain at the end.
And so, ultimately, obviously the President has spent a lot of time on this, has worked very hard on it. He wants to try to make as much progress on this before he leaves office as he can. But ultimately, the parties are going to have to make decisions about whether they want to sit down and hammer out the hardest and final issues.
Q Jake, has the framework of these discussions changed really, dramatically at all since the Camp David proposals?
MR. SIEWERT: Well, I think that we left Camp David with a pretty solid understanding of what divided the parties and what's happened in the interim is that we have shared some ideas about how to narrow the differences, how to bridge some of the differences between the two parties. And as the President said, that effort has brought the parties closer than they ever have been before to at least understanding what the toughest issues are, where the compromise lies.
But there are issues to be negotiated still. That's why we've encouraged both sides to sit down and discuss them. But there's no doubt that we've come some way since Camp David in that we have a firmer understanding of what a final compromise might look like. But it's up to the parties to make those final decisions, and that's why we've encouraged both of them to seize this opportunity and try to work through those difficult issues.
Q If I may follow up for a second, I guess the undercurrent of my question is, could this kind of deal possibly have been struck back then?
MR. SIEWERT: Well, I don't know that there's much point in going through the whole history here. I mean, you heard from the President right after Camp David; he felt that they achieved a great deal of progress in working through those issues and thought that they were very close then and possibly could have done a little bit more. But we're focused on the here and now, and this is not a time to think about what could have been. We're focused on trying to use the next several weeks to do what we can to try to encourage the parties to make those touch choices.
Q Should something not come by the time the President leaves office, how confident is President Clinton in President-elect Bush's ability to continue these negotiations?
MR. SIEWERT: Well, we're focused on today's meeting, not a meeting -- not the next several weeks. We're focused on what we can do today, and after today, we'll let you know what next steps we'll take, if any. But our focus is, as it always has been, on the work that's right in front of us.
Q Well, how do you see this meeting? This meeting is not a negotiating meeting, right?
MR. SIEWERT: No, this is not a meeting to negotiate --
Q -- to deliver his answer.
MR. SIEWERT: We need both parties to negotiate. This is to try to reach an understanding of what such a negotiation would look like, what the boundaries of such a negotiation would be, and how we would move forward if we were to sit down. As I've said this morning --
Q So it has to be within the President's framework.
MR. SIEWERT: We think that any negotiation should take place within the framework that the President outlined, because that's where the really tough issues really need to be decided, and that sitting down with a common set of understandings is the most -- is the best way to move forward. And the President's told both sides what he thinks -- where that framework is, where the sidelines are, if you were. But we understand that there's still more negotiating to be done, and that's why we're encouraging them both to agree to sit down.
Q There has been a criticism in the Arab world about the way how President Clinton is dealing with this, and trying to achieve a deal before he leaves office, and that is by pressuring the Palestinian side to agree on his proposal.
MR. SIEWERT: Well, I don't want to get into the substance of the discussion, but I don't think -- look, ultimately the parties have to make decisions about whether they want to negotiate, whether they want to make the hardest, toughest decisions. No one can force them to do that. We're not trying to force them to do that. They have to make a decision about whether they want to confront these decisions now, or they want to confront them tomorrow. We think that there is an opportunity now to do it, and we've encouraged both sides to do it. But we're not -- we're not in a position to tell anyone what they can or can't do.
What we're trying to do is encourage them to make the tough decisions, to take the risks for peace. But no one thinks these decisions are easy. The President has made clear that he thinks that these are the hardest issues, but that they've never been closer, and that there's a window now in which both sides can act. And he's encouraged them to do so. But ultimately that's a decision for the parties to each make on their own.
Q Is the President putting his parameters on paper, and if not today, is he planning to do that sometime?
MR. SIEWERT: I don't know that we've put anything on paper, but we have shared ideas with both sides. And in his discussions with Prime Minister Barak and Chairman Arafat over the weekend, he made clear, obviously, where we think the parameters are. I think they understand pretty well where they are, but we're going to sit down today and discuss that probably in a little bit more detail, with Chairman Arafat, and we'll hear from him after that meeting.
Q Jake, does the President still believe that land concessions, including holy sites in East Jerusalem are on the table?
MR. SIEWERT: I'm not going to -- Ken, I'd love to go through each issue one by one, but if I start down that road, we'll never end. So we'll leave the substance of these negotiations to the negotiators. But what I can tell you is that the President thinks that the toughest issues remain, and he's offered some ideas about how -- to both sides, about how to resolve them. But that still leaves a fair amount of negotiating for both sides to do.
Q How long is the meeting? It's been a while.
MR. SIEWERT: We've scheduled an hour and a half for it. But that's really just a loose construct on the President's time. Ultimately, the meeting will last as long as it takes, and --
Q Jake, if I can come back to that, the President believes -- there's been obviously a lot of conflicting comments on both sides regarding specifically land, but other issues as well. Is the President at least aware of this, and does he have a -- has he moved his position?
MR. SIEWERT: No, I think the President has recognized all along that the parties have to make the decisions about what they are going to do. What he's offered is some guidelines about how to try to hammer out those decisions, how to reach those decisions. Look, every negotiation involves a lot of give and take, and both sides are going to have to decide, ultimately, what their bottom line is. What we're trying to do is offer them some ideas on how to do that, some constructive ideas on how to do that.
Q Was there some consideration of the plight of refugees in Lebanon, and if there is any preparation for these countries -- Syria and Lebanon -- for the comprehensive peace that we seek?
MR. SIEWERT: Again, that goes into the substance of some of the issues that are best really left for the negotiators and for the parties, themselves, to discuss. But we've obviously been consulting with other -- some of the other Arab leaders in the region and will continue to do that, and we'll continue to discuss how they can be helpful. All of them indicated an interest last week -- President Mubarak and others -- in helping do what they could to resolve the toughest issues. And they lent their support to the President's efforts to try to bring this to a close. And we'll wait and hear from them, consult with them further about how we move forward after today's meeting.
Q Jake, is the President, is he willing to entertain the possibility of changing these guidelines at all? Are they fixed?
MR. SIEWERT: I think -- look, there is obviously -- some of the meeting today is based on the idea of a more thorough understanding of what the guidelines are. But the President said last week very clearly that he thinks that there's not much point in having a discussion unless we agree on some basic parameters that he's shared with them about what those guidelines are and how we move forward.
Q Jake, the President, over the weekend, signed the International War Crimes Court Treaty.
MR. SIEWERT: Yes.
Q Is there any concern about possible opposition coming from Congress on this treaty, and coming from perhaps the Bush administration?
MR. SIEWERT: Yes, well, we understand that there are some concerns about the treaty. We signed it because we want to be able to address some of those concerns. And in fact, the President outlined in his statement some of the concerns he had. But we think, all in all, that ultimately the International Criminal Court could provide greater accountability. But in order to influence the final shape that such a court would take, we need to have signed that treaty and be part of that process.
So the President signed that, recognizing full well that it's not a perfect product, but that he wanted to be able to let the United States continue to try to shape that treaty, and he is not planning on sending it to Congress, certainly, until he's concerned that some of the areas that we outlined have been addressed. That will be for a future administration to decide, but they will have an opportunity now, since we signed it, to take part in the process of correcting some of the problems that the President outlined and that others have outlined, both inside and outside the administration.
Q When do you foresee more pardons?
Q Jake, after the President leaves office, will he occupy a townhouse on Jackson Place that's part of the White House Complex as his office?
MR. SIEWERT: I don't think he will use that office himself. We have made arrangements, as have other presidents in the past, to have some office space nearby where they can handle, essentially, the correspondence and paperwork as they transition to his full-time office. But his full-time office will be in New York City. I don't think we have a final site for that yet, but it's something that we're working on.
But President Reagan had an office across the street. I saw there was some wacky criticism from some of the wackier elements of Washington, but the reality is that this is an office that other presidents have used, and we expect that it will be on a staff level. But I told one reporter on Friday that it's time for some of the -- we're getting ready to move on here pretty soon. It's time for some of the Clinton-haters to move on, too, to find something else to do with their lives.
Q Just a quick follow-up. Some of the so-called wacky criticism is that -- questions whether it's appropriate since it's part of the White House Complex and he's no longer --
MR. SIEWERT: Well, I mean, look, it's perfectly appropriate. It's envisioned, in fact, by the Presidential Transition Act that the President would have an office afterwards. It's essentially an intra-government reimbursement, but GSA is reimbursed for the costs of that office, just as it was under President Ronald Reagan, for space. In fact, the Reagan office was two doors or three doors down over on Jackson Place.
But, again, this is fairly traditional use of it and one that's envisioned by the Presidential Transition Act. There's money provided for it by Congress, pretty straightforward. So I don't know what all the fuss is about.
Q Does he know what staff he's taking with him?
MR. SIEWERT: He has made some decisions about that. In fact, we may have some news for you on that shortly. But, obviously, a much smaller staff, but there are a couple people he's talked to about moving with him to the next stage of his life.
Q Has he made a decision on the exact date the Roger Gregory nomination is going to go to Congress?
MR. SIEWERT: I don't know, but I expect we'll send it up shortly so that they have plenty of time to act on it.
Q Obviously before the 20th?
MR. SIEWERT: Yes. No, in fact, I would expect it would go up this week, but I'll double-check on that.
Q Any more pardons coming up?
MR. SIEWERT: He is going to review some more. I can't promise that he will act in a positive way on any of them. But he has more to review and we'll let you know when he's done reviewing the next round.
Q Jake, Hillary is expected to be sworn-in tomorrow. How does the President feel as she embarks on this new chapter in her life and how does he feel about being the spouse of a senator?
MR. SIEWERT: I think he is very much looking forward to it. He has talked himself about how privileged he feels to be the first President in history to have a spouse who has taken on a role in Congress after he leaves office. And so he's going to be part of the festivities this week; he's going to go as a spectator, as an observer, to the swearing-in and some of the other events that she has planned around this. But this is very much her week, as far as that goes, and he'll stay focused on the work he has to do here.
Q He won't be a participant, then?
MR. SIEWERT: Oh, he'll be there, but he's there as an observer, as a spouse.
Q Speaking of him being a spouse, when his term ends on the 20th, will he leave Washington, or will he just move over to the new house?
MR. SIEWERT: I expect -- he will make his permanent residence in New York, so I expect that before -- I don't know exactly what the plans are for the 20th. We'll let you know when we make a final decision. But I expect that he will spend the bulk of his time in the New York house in Chappaqua, that we've told you time and time again is their permanent residence --
Q Yes, but this is a big one, Jake. I mean, either the helicopter lifts him off the lawn and takes him to Andrews and he gets the hell out of town, or he gets in a car and drives up Massachusetts Avenue, saying, see you soon. (Laughter.)
MR. SIEWERT: I expect we'll be leaving town. There's been some question about whether we would go to Arkansas or New York that day. And so when we have a final decision on that, I'll let you know.
Q But he is leaving town on the 20th?
MR. SIEWERT: We will leave town. And as I said -- (laughter) -- I'll be leaving, too, hopefully -- although I may come back. But --
Q You're going to leave with him?
MR. SIEWERT: I expect so. That's fairly traditional. We may even take the press. I looked this up -- (laughter) -- but I looked it up and in the last administration they didn't take the press with them on the trip out. There was one journalist brought along for the ride. That was not tradition, so I think we're going to try to restore the tradition.
Q Well, it is tradition to send reporters.
MR. SIEWERT: Yes, I know, but eight years ago it wasn't done, for reasons that are beyond me.
Q I took LBJ home.
Q Twelve years ago it was done.
Q It was Johnson --
MR. SIEWERT: Twelve years ago it was done. But eight years ago it was not. No, I think it's a tradition worth honoring. I think we ought to bring the press with us to wherever we go. That way you'll know. (Laughter.)
Q That he made it. (Laughter.)
MR. SIEWERT: We'll pass out those cards that tell you when we land. (Laughter.)
Q Does he have a speaking role at any of the events this week for the First Lady?
MR. SIEWERT: He may talk a little bit informally at some of the parties, but he doesn't at the formal swearing-in, I don't think.
Q Anything further on farewell addresses and when those might -- address or addresses.
MR. SIEWERT: No. I know he's given what he considers two major speeches already, one in Warwick and one in Nebraska at the University of Nebraska at Kearney. And we will probably give a speech -- the President will give a speech, not we -- on his domestic agenda, and we're looking at a final couple of options for him. But we'll let you know when we have one.
Q Is the President considering national monument status for ANWR, the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge?
MR. SIEWERT: He is -- Secretary Babbitt has forwarded a number of monument suggestions to the President. That is not included among them. And the President actually did address this in an interview with the Discovery Channel in which he said that he wasn't sure that giving ANWR monument status would confer any additional protections on it in terms of oil exploration. We oppose exploration of oil in ANWR and we've made that pretty clear. But it's governed already by legislation and any future administration would have to go to Congress and get that ban lifted.
So we think that it's a terrible mistake to open ANWR for drilling. We think that it's one of the most pristine wilderness areas in America and should be left that way. But I don't -- the President is not certain and has not received a recommendation yet about whether or not to designate that as a monument. Although ultimately -- you'd have to check with Interior whether they plan any additional work on that.
Q Is there any other protection he could confer on it, or is that the only one he can?
MR. SIEWERT: I mean, the legal protection under the congressional law is pretty strong. But it's obviously something that some of the staff around the government have looked at, but I don't think we've received a recommendation on it.
Q Jake, the President had asked the Justice Department to look into some of the statistics on the federal death penalty. I know they reported back in September. There's been some ongoing work at the Justice Department. Any thought about the President setting up some sort of citizen panel to ensure this would go on in the next administration?
MR. SIEWERT: No, I think this is something -- I think this is something the next administration is going to have to confront. The President was troubled by the geographic disparities that the initial numbers showed, and obviously he's asked the Department of Justice to look at this further. And he granted, in fact, a stay of clemency while that work was going on. But there are obviously more cases that will come up that will have to be dealt with by the new administration. That was not -- that was an issue that was very specifically at the heart of the clemency plea in the Garza case.
There may be other cases where it's not specifically addressed. But the whole issue of racial and geographic disparity was raised by the petitioner in that case, so the President put it off for six months. That's something the next administration will have to do.
Q Do you expect any more executive orders coming out this week?
MR. SIEWERT: Possibly, you never know. We're still always looking at a couple of the ones that are -- where we've made preliminary rulings, but we have not made any final announcements.
Q Do you know who will be in the meeting with Arafat besides the President?
MR. SIEWERT: Is it one on one?
MR. CROWLEY: It starts in a large group, and then it comes down to two on two.
MR. SIEWERT: We'll let you -- we'll give you names later.
Q -- Albright --
MR. CROWLEY: Secretary Albright will be in the meeting.
Q Jake, what has Norman Mineta told the President about his meetings with George W. Bush?
MR. SIEWERT: That's a good question. I don't want to get out ahead of whatever announcement they may or may not make.
Q Oh, go on. (Laughter.)
MR. SIEWERT: But just on our end, Norm Mineta, who has worked very closely with the President throughout the eight years, and has served as Secretary of Commerce, did call the President to let him know that he had been approached. So I believe he spoke to the President on Friday, also spoke to the Vice President, and spoke to John Podesta over the weekend.
And obviously, the President thinks Norm Mineta has done a terrific job in Congress, and at the Commerce Department, and would be a valuable member -- has been a valuable member of his team, would be a valuable member of the President-elect's team. But that's ultimately a decision that they have to make. But he did let us know that he'd been approached, and was thinking of following up. And the President and Vice President encouraged him to do so.
Q Were any other Cabinet members approached?
MR. SIEWERT: Not that I'm aware of, no.
Q No one else has informed the President that they have been asked?
MR. SIEWERT: I've seen some speculation in the press about some -- one particular person staying on, but I don't know whether that person's actually been approached. You'll have to check with them.
All right, thank you.
END 2:16 P.M. EST