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 Home > News & Policies > May 2002

For Immediate Release
Office of the Press Secretary
May 3, 2002

Press Briefing by Ari Fleischer
The James S. Brady Briefing Room

12:39 P.M. EDT

MR. FLEISCHER: The President this morning had his usual round of intelligence briefings, and then he made remarks earlier this morning about the vacancy crisis in our federal courts.

He completed a meeting late this morning with the Foreign Minister of Russia, at which they discussed the President's hope to be able to reach reductions in offensive weapons agreement before the President's -- that would be signed at the President's meeting with President Putin in Russia later this month. They discussed trade issues between the United States and Russia, as well as the upcoming meeting in Italy to discuss Russia's role within NATO.

The President later this afternoon will host a reception for Cinco de Mayo.

Then he will depart from the White House for Camp David, where the President will meet with President of Spain Aznar, where they will discuss bilateral issues between the United States and Spain. They will discuss the war against terrorism, as well as the upcoming NATO summit in the Czech Republic later this year.

On announcement, and then I'll be happy to take your questions. President Bush will meet with Prime Minister Sharon at the White House on May 7th, to discuss developments in the Middle East, as well as key bilateral issues.

And with that, I'm happy to take your questions.

Q Your Russian guest said that there is a very high probability that there will be an agreement in time for the Moscow meeting. Would you agree with that characterization?

MR. FLEISCHER: Well, I would say that across the board relations with Russia are very strong. President Bush has made a top priority of his administration, working very closely with President Putin on a range of issues involving proliferation, involving missile reductions, involving moving beyond the ABM treaty and helping Russia to look westward.

The President is hopeful that an agreement can be reached that he will be able to sign when he arrives in Russia. There has been a lot of hard work done by the Russians and the Americans, and the President is hopeful.

Q But does the White House agree or disagree with that characterization, that there's a very high probability that it will be --

MR. FLEISCHER: I leave it just as I said, that the President is hopeful.

Q Ari, the unemployment rate for April was 6 percent, the highest in almost eight years. How is the White House interpreting that, and are you concerned at all about political implications for the President and the Republicans?

MR. FLEISCHER: The President is very concerned about anybody in America who is unemployed. And the President has noted that there has been some recent news about the economy. It's beginning to recover from last year's recession and to grow. He also notes, of course, that unemployment is typically a lagging indicator.

But the President does believe that as a result of the interest rate cuts that were enacted last year, as a result of the tax cut that was enacted last year, as a result of the stimulus enacted earlier this year, there are strong signs that the economy is poised to grow and unemployment will come down.

The President believes to make that happen now it requires congressional action, and he hopes that Congress will pass trade promotion authority, which will create jobs, take action on energy legislation to create jobs, and pass terrorism insurance, which can also help to create jobs in our economy.

Q But the reality is that if Congress doesn't do that and you -- and the recovery isn't happening as quickly as you'd like, and that's apparently what these numbers would mean, that it could be the primary political issue come November?

MR. FLEISCHER: Well, I'm not going to guess what could be a primary political issue. I do note that the American people strongly support the President and his economic policies. I've seen abundant amounts of data from the media. Particularly, there was a Gallup poll, for example, out just yesterday that asked questions about the American people -- of the American people about the President's handling of the economy, and they are overwhelmingly supportive of it.

And I think one of the things American people look for from Washington is for the President and the Congress to be able to work together on behalf of the country. And one of the best ways that the President and the Congress can work together is to get agreement on trade promotion authority; to get agreement on comprehensive energy legislation, which has a side benefit of creating a lot of jobs for the American people; and to get an agreement on terrorism insurance, which is harming the ability, particularly in the commercial real estate sector and in the building trades for people to get hired, because there is a lack of insurance or a problem with getting full insurance, which is hindering the ability of large buildings to be constructed. Large building construction is one of the greatest ways to make certain that working Americans, particularly blue collar workers, people in the building trades, get the jobs that they deserve.

Q Ari, a couple on the visit of the Foreign Minister and the potential for an agreement. First off, is the sticking point still that the U.S. wants to store excess warheads in case of an emergency, and the Russians continuing to object to that? Or has that been worked out?

MR. FLEISCHER: Kelly, as you can imagine, involving any major codification of something as significant as the fundamental reduction that the President says he will make in offensive arms, there is a series of issues, some of which are legal. I have not delved into the specifics of each one of them. But there -- any announcement of this type, any codification of this type has a lot of t's to be crossed and i's to be dotted. And that's what the lawyers and the negotiators are working on now.

Q The other thing is the Foreign Ministry used the word "treaty" when he came out and talked to us here. Does the U.S. view what the President and President Putin could sign later this month as a "treaty" as well?

MR. FLEISCHER: I would want to talk to some of the lawyers before I can give you a comfortable answer to that, to see exactly what the precise form this codification will take.

Q But there is -- you are supporting some type of written agreement that the two leaders would sign on to --

MR. FLEISCHER: That's correct.

Q -- over this offensive --

MR. FLEISCHER: A document that would be signed in Russian. That's the President's hope.

Q Let me follow up. Do you agree with the underlying -- that there are sticking points? Or are we just talking about, as you said, crossing the t's and dotting the i's?

MR. FLEISCHER: Well, that's a good question, Ron. And it goes back to the President is hopeful. I'm aware of how it's been characterized. And these are all good signs, but more work needs to be done. Talks are continuing, and the President is hopeful.

Q Ari, on the side legislation you mentioned on trade promotion authority, why does the White House think there's been no agreement over the health care part of that? That's a sticking point on that bill. And do you believe that steel workers ought to be part of the legislation as well, as Senator Daschle has asked?

MR. FLEISCHER: Okay, well, number one, this is the nature of the Congress. Not everything moves at the speed the President would like it to move, of course, particularly in the Senate. That's a problem in that, particularly with the Andean Trade Preferences Act, there are going to be some preferences that will expire, and that can raise the price for our Latin American friends who do business with the United States at a time when we need to be promoting international trade, not creating barriers.

So time is of the essence. That's why the President gave a deadline to the Senate that's meaningful. The Senate needs to act and act quickly.

Specifically on the question of TAA or trade adjustment assistance, trade adjustment assistance has historically been a very bipartisan program. The problem now is that one of the proposals offered by the Majority Leader of the Senate has no bipartisan support. He has taken what has always been a bipartisan program and turned it into something that is partisan and has gone too far.

Nevertheless, we continue to talk with the Senate to try to reach an agreement about how to have a trade adjustment agreement that will allow for passage of the trade promotion authority.

Q But on the question of steel workers, should they be part of that bill? And should health care benefits in general be part of the bill?

MR. FLEISCHER: The risk to trade agreements is when the people start trying to address other issues that in the domestic agenda have absolutely nothing to do with the fundamental trade agreement itself. And if people try to make trade promotion authority a Christmas tree for all kinds of other domestic issues that have no direct bearing on trade promotion authority, it risks undermining the prospects for a bipartisan agreement.

Q Yesterday, the President seemed to go beyond -- in talking about the Palestinian Authority -- his call that they renounce terrorism. He said that this moment represents a new opportunity for Palestinians to choose how they live, and also talked about the need to end corruption. Is the President seeking to change the way the Palestinian Authority governs its areas of responsibilities? And how does he want to see that affected? Would there be strings attached to American aid to make sure that there's open bidding, or that kind of thing?

MR. FLEISCHER: As part of the President's vision of an Israel and a Palestinian living side by side, as two states living in security and in peace, a major part of that is the commitment of the Palestinian people to have a state that is governed by the rule of law, by democracy, by transparency, and by a lack of corruption. And the President does have concerns about the Palestinian Authority, and making certain that the Palestinian people have a government that is worthy of them, and is not in any way inhibited in its ability to serve the people as a result of lack of transparency or lack of rule of law, or the presence of corruption.

Q So right now he sees the Palestinian Authority as plagued by corruption? And how would he want the U.S. to help effect a change?

MR. FLEISCHER: The President has spoken out, if you recall, in Monterrey, about the need to make certain that nations around the world are not plagued by corruption. And the President's message to the Palestinian Authority is that they need to make certain that as part of becoming a state that they take action to make sure they have transparency, rule of law and fight corruption.

Q I was just wondering does he have any confidence, then, that Yasser Arafat can give the Palestinian people a democratic, non-corrupt government?

MR. FLEISCHER: Again, Yasser Arafat, on the question of fighting terrorism and also on the questions of corruption and rule of law has not earned the President's trust. And these are all issues that the President will watch and monitor.

It's worth noting that the Palestinian Authority, within the lands that they currently have self-governance for, can exercise those very values that the President described and spoke to in his speech yesterday. Those will be helpful steps for the Palestinian Authority to take in the here and now, even before the political talks reach the stage at which a state can be created. It is a concern for the President.

Q Just to shift gears on a different subject. The people of France are going to vote this Sunday in a presidential election in which Jean-Marie Le Pen is one of the candidates. Has the President said anything about the Le Pen candidacy; and, in the broader context, about the rise of anti-Semitic acts of violence in France and elsewhere in Europe, and the feeling of many Americans that the leadership in Europe has not done enough to discourage and stop --

MR. FLEISCHER: Separating the two issues, the President, number one, on the issue of the French election, recognizes of course the sovereignty of democratic elected France and this is a French matter. On the question of anti-Semitism, if you recall in a speech the President gave in San Jose earlier this week, the President spoke specifically about anti-Semitism and specifically cited the burning of synagogues in France.

Q And does he think European leaders have done enough to discourage that kind of activity?

MR. FLEISCHER: I think the President understands that the governments of Europe and the leaders of Europe have an issue that is separate, that comes from some quarters of their population that is anti-Semitic. And the President has raised this in conversations he's had with different leaders from Europe. It is a concern for the President.

The President has a real, heartfelt view about human rights and religious freedom. The President has raised issues about religious freedom in meetings with China's leaders. The President has raised issues about rights for people around the world -- as he said in his State of the Union, human dignity around the world and freedom of speech, freedom of press, freedom to worship. And the President does have concerns about anti-Semitism in this world and he has spoken out about them, mostly privately. He did so publicly, of course, in his remarks earlier this week.

Q Ari, on the issue of unemployment, but something that goes hand in hand with that, welfare reform and education. Yesterday Senator Hillary Clinton said that President Bush's welfare reform proposal was deficient. And you're saying that the President is concerned about anyone who is unemployed. Can you rebut Senator Clinton's statement that it's deficient, especially as far as education, child care and things of that nature?

MR. FLEISCHER: I think the core of those remarks as I understood them was that there are several Democrats who want to spend more money on welfare programs. And as a result of the dramatic decline in welfare caseloads, by leaving the welfare funding at the 1997 level, which it is currently in law, there is so much more money per welfare recipient now in the system under the President's proposal, because of the dramatic decline in caseload, while leaving funding levels the same level as they were in 1997 when there were millions more on welfare, the President believes that we have full resources necessary to help address getting people from welfare into work, including plenty of money for sufficient money for child care.

The President is very aware that there are certain people whose preference in government is to raise taxes and use the money to increase welfare spending. He does not subscribe to that view.

Q But Senator Clinton specifically also said training. And with unemployment, these people who are off the job, a lot of them are falling through the cracks and need training and education. What do you say about that?

MR. FLEISCHER: Training and education are an integral part of welfare reform under the President's proposal. And that's an issue that we hope we would be able to work with Senators and Congressmen on that issue. That's an important issue, and an integral part of the President's proposals.

Q Ari --

MR. FLEISCHER: You know our system, Les. You're sitting, you're not standing. You're half up. We're going to come back to you at the end, Les. That's our --

Q -- no seat, there's a chair.

Q Well, it was a vacant chair. (Laughter.)

MR. FLEISCHER: David Sanger -- Wendell, you're one row behind Mr. Sanger. We always go row by row by row.

Q You always go row by row, and you always get back to --

MR. FLEISCHER: I get there. (Laughter.) Oh, now we're going to go all around the room. (Laughter.) Wendell, you follow Les today.

Q And then you come to the side.

MR. FLEISCHER: David Sanger.

Q On Prime Minister Sharon's upcoming visit, he has repeatedly either defied the President or moved at a pace that the President did not find sufficient in the month since the speech that the President gave out in the Rose Garden. Can you tell us in your -- in the initial thinking about this meeting, what the President's message has been to Prime Minister Sharon about complying with American requests, and how he plans to reinforce that message, if at all, in the meeting?

MR. FLEISCHER: Well, number one, in the now just under one month since the President gave those Rose Garden remarks, there has been dramatic progress and improvement in the situation in the Middle East. The President in those remarks called on Israel, the Palestinian Authority, and the Arab nations to exercise their responsibilities to help bring peace to the region. And there have been several positive developments to make that happen. And Israel, of course, after discussions with the President, began its withdrawal, continued its withdrawal, and is now out of Ramallah, in a very helpful breakthrough.

The President understands that these issues have been vexing issues for decades, if not centuries. And in one month's time, there has been some helpful progress. More progress is necessary. But the President's fundamental message to Israel is that he understands their need to act in self-defense. He understands their need for security. He wants to be certain that Israel does not take any step on behalf of those two causes, which endangers the possibility of arriving at a political solution, or a broader vision of peace down the road.

Q And will the kinds of suggestions that Mr. Sharon has made in recent days -- I think on Nightline the other night, about building barriers and sealing Israel off from the West Bank -- is that the kind of impediment you're referring to?

MR. FLEISCHER: David, there are many different people in the Middle East who have their ideas about how to achieve peace and security. And the purpose of the President's upcoming summits which he's going to have this week with President Sharon -- Prime Minister Sharon, and with King Abdullah of Jordan, as well as the multiple conversations that take place diplomatically, as well at the ministerial meeting Secretary Powell is organizing for the summer, the purpose of those meetings is to listen to these ideas, to explore the different options that people are putting on the table.

It's a far, far better thing for people to suggest their ideas of peace than to take actions of war. And the President welcomes these various ideas. And as part of this -- I mentioned the two summits next week, the ministerial this summer -- since the President took office, the meeting that he will have with King Abdullah will be the 13th direct summit meeting the President has had with an Arab head of state, almost one a month since the President became President. The President has had 53 direct telephone calls with Arab heads of state. The President is working very, very hard at working the region, focusing on ideas for peace so that the environment for peace can be created so they can move to the political steps. There has been a tremendous amount of personal engagement, and that does not even include the various phone calls and meetings the Secretary of State has had on this account.

Q The President is going to be discussing education and his faith-based plan and other compassionate topics over the next few weeks. And Democrats say this is basically a campaign ploy to try and get Republicans elected in the elections. Assuming you don't agree with that, what is the purpose in talking about issues like education, which has already been passed by Congress?

MR. FLEISCHER: Number one, the President is very thankful to the hundreds of Democrats who voted with him on his education plan. The President thinks that's exactly the type of bipartisanship that Washington should be known for, and he's grateful for that.

The President will continue to push for education reforms, particularly now that the education reform helping students and parents and teachers in secondary schools has been enacted into law, with a real focus on early childhood development, on little children who are in Head Start programs. The President has made a proposal to the Congress to help train all Head Start teachers in the United States.

So the President, who made a real hallmark of education reform as a bipartisan issue in Texas, is continuing that trend here in Washington, and with some good success and good results.

Q Did the President's discussions with Ivanov include the subject of Iraq and the debate going on in the U.N. right now over resumption of weapons inspections?


Q Well, more broadly, if I could follow up, in the past when the U.N. has dealt with the question of weapons inspections in Iraq, the Russians have been among the least cooperative from the American point of view, least cooperative in terms of that issue. Do we see any change in the Russian point of view on that subject?

MR. FLEISCHER: The United Nations, I believe in June, will have the next -- that will be the next six-month increment for when the question of dealing with sanctions in Iraq comes up. There are ongoing discussions at the United Nations now involving a number of parties, and we are working productively with our Russian friends on the question of sanctions for Iraq.

It's too soon to say what form that will result in, but I can characterize the discussions as productive.

Q I'm actually not asking about the sanctions, I'm asking about weapons inspections there. The Iraqi media, Iraqi officials who were in New York over the last few days talking with U.N. officials, including the Secretary-General, about the possibility of resuming weapons inspections. Has the Russian attitude toward that changed, in our view? Have we seen any moderation of the Russian --

MR. FLEISCHER: I think Russia agrees with the United States about the need to make certain that Iraq lives up to the terms that they, themselves, said they would honor as a result of agreement to end the Persian Gulf War in 1991. And that is that Iraq promised they would not develop weapons of mass destruction, and they need to keep that promise. And that's ongoing conversations, and I can only characterize them as such.


Q Ari, thank you. If the purpose of the ministerial meeting envisioned for the summer is not to negotiate a peace agreement, practically speaking, what would you expect to come out of the talks?

MR. FLEISCHER: I think that meeting is going to be a very helpful way to explore a variety of ideas that different people have for how to bring peace to the region. And the more people are focused on ideas to create peace as opposed to actions that lead to war, the President and the Secretary believe the better off the prospects for arriving at peace will be.

There are many people who have something they want to contribute. There are many people who have different ideas. And this ministerial meeting is one helpful way of bringing these people together, so that ideas can be talked through and explored.

Q Yesterday, Secretary of State Powell specifically called on Israel to stop construction of settlements. It is the policy of this government that continued settlement construction does not advance the prospects of peace. I have not heard the President call on Israel to stop constructing settlements.

MR. FLEISCHER: That has been longstanding American policy. I can --

Q Does the White House believe that Ariel Sharon should discontinue construction of settlements immediately?

MR. FLEISCHER: The American position and President Bush's position is that construction of new settlements is not helpful.

Q It's a little bit different, a little nuance there, between that and a call for Prime Minister Sharon to stop.

MR. FLEISCHER: No, the President agrees with that.

Q Let me ask you one more question, if I may, about a different issue. Apparently, the FBI had indications, or at least one agent, that Middle Eastern men were signing up for flight training in advance of the September 11th attacks. This -- apparently there was no action taken on this. Is the President troubled by this?

MR. FLEISCHER: I have seen a wire story about that. I have not had any independent confirmation or any conversations with people inside the White House about it. And so you may want to talk with the Department of Justice to ascertain all the facts involved in that. But I just don't have anything other than the fact that I saw the same story that you're referring to.


Q Thank you. By the way, thank you for your fairness to all of us. You're really good.

On this announcement by Secretary Powell yesterday, did the White House authorize it? There was some talk that the announcement might have been a bit premature.

MR. FLEISCHER: No, it was authorized, of course.

Q Is there any concern that it was kind of a half-baked announcement? Why was it made at this time, when there's no other details establishing --

MR. FLEISCHER: I think it was made at this time for the obvious reasons that the Secretary was in a meeting with the Quartet, which are some of the key leaders who the Secretary has previously met with. If you remember, he did so in Spain, on his way out to the Middle East just about a month or so -- two ago -- month ago. And this group has worked productively to try to bring ideas to the floor about how to achieve peace in the Middle East. So it was a natural place to do it.

Q Ari, what was the President's reaction to the fact that no link has been found between the September 11th terrorist Mohammed Atta and Iraq? Did he have any reaction?

MR. FLEISCHER: Well, number one, I have seen conflicting media accounts of those alleged meeting, or whether there was or was not a meeting. And so I can't comment on the basis of conflicting media accounts.

Q Why does the President want to sign any treaty in Russia? When he first announced the missile cuts, he said he'd do it unilaterally, didn't need agreement.

MR. FLEISCHER: That's correct. Ann, as I indicated earlier this morning, the President will proceed, because he thinks that this is the right thing to do for the United States, to unilaterally -- to reduce the number of offensive weapons.

Q The question is why.

MR. FLEISCHER: Because I think it's a sign of the President as a very good diplomat, that the President recognizing that this is something that is important to President Putin, that this is something that the United States and Russia can work productively together on, and that's important to President Bush.

So make no mistake, the President does feel very strongly that it is in America's interest, because you can safely reduce the number of offensive weapons down to a level in which America will still be able to protect ourselves, without having -- the President still has a concern about overspending. And that applies to the Department of Defense, as well.

So the President believes we can, indeed, safely reduce the level of offensive weapons down to between 1,700 and 2,200. But he does want to work cooperatively, productively with President Putin. And he is, as I indicated earlier, hopeful that we will be able to send the world a signal through a signing ceremony that the United States and Russia have indeed entered into a new, wonderful era where we work together, and work together well.

Q Ari, can I follow that?

MR. FLEISCHER: Well, Bob, we'll get back there -- there are no hands up in between there and you, so Bob.

Q Okay, great. Ari, President Putin has said he wants this to be a formal treaty, and Mr. Ivanov repeated that out in the stakeout. Does President Bush think that's the best way to codify this agreement, or does he think some other vehicle would be more appropriate?

MR. FLEISCHER: Again, as I indicated to Kelly, lawyers, et cetera, are still working on all that level.

Q So he's open to the idea of a treaty?

MR. FLEISCHER: The President has always been open to the form that it would take.

Q Ari? Thank you. Former President Carter has mediated disputes around the world. Is there any thought of sending him to the Middle East to try and mediate between Israel and the Palestinians?

MR. FLEISCHER: I think the President is pursuing, as I mentioned to you, in the numerous phone calls the President has had, the numerous summit meetings the President has had, the President is pursuing official avenues.

Q Ari, two days ago a group of environmentalists and labor unions presented a lawsuit in federal court in San Francisco trying to at least delay the decision of President Bush on Mexican trucks coming to the United States. I wonder if the White House has any reaction to that?

MR. FLEISCHER: You're asking specifically on the lawsuit?

Q Yes.

MR. FLEISCHER: I have no information on the lawsuit. That might be something you need to talk to the Department of Justice about. I can assure you of the President's commitment to getting a resolution on that agreement. And I think we had some real progress made in a proposal made through the Department of Transportation, if I recall.

Q Two questions, please. One, today Freedom House announced that 51 journalists were killed while doing their jobs around the globe, and that doesn't include the -- in Pakistan. And Pakistan President also announced that might tighten the freedom of the press in Pakistan. And he just signed a referendum also. What are the thoughts of the President -- on the referendum and also on the freedom of the press?

MR. FLEISCHER: I think, as you heard the President say when he was in Beijing, on the morning when he found out about the death of Daniel Pearl, the President cares very deeply about freedom of the press and he understands the dangers that are inherent in reporting, particularly around the world, particularly in places where there is violent conflict. The President takes these matters very seriously.

And he also recognizes the bravery of reporters who decide to put themselves in harm's way, that way their viewers or their readers can be informed about events.

Q And the second one, just to follow that. The President may have seen the report that the former President Bill Clinton will have his own talk show. (Laughter.) Will President Bush watch him -- (laughter.)

Q Or be a guest. (Laughter.)

Q What does he think of the idea?

MR. FLEISCHER: I will diplomatically refer you to the statement put out by Ms. Payne, the President's -- former President's spokeswoman. I think she has fully addressed it.

Q What does the White House think? What does this White House think?

MR. FLEISCHER: I think this is a perfect segue to Les. (Laughter.)

Q Actually, that was one of my questions. (Laughter.)

MR. FLEISCHER: Now you can't ask it. No, Les, and now you're down one.

Q No, no, I was going to add that on half a question. Ari, is the President concerned that some of the insurance companies who insured slaves 140 years ago are now being sued as a means of obtaining black reparations, or does he believe that there should be consideration of statutes of limitations?

MR. FLEISCHER: Les, we've discussed this issue of reparations numerous times, and my answer has not changed.

Q The insurance company, that's four more that have just been hit with suits yesterday.

MR. FLEISCHER: Les, the President does not weigh in on any matters in the private sector involving litigants.

Q What is the President's reaction to the fact that no such concern has been expressed by these lawyers or the NAACP about the black slavery that exists today in Mauritania and Sudan?

MR. FLEISCHER: Les, I would just refer you again to litigants.

Q Do you know anything about the Palestinians saying that Ahmed Saadat and another top Arafat lieutenant, Fuad Shubaki are going to be released? And the Israelis are saying, no that's part of the Ramallah deal, they're supposed to stay in jail?

MR. FLEISCHER: I don't know.

Q Can you check on that, what the White House reaction would be to that?

MR. FLEISCHER: Let me get those names from you later.

Thank you.

END 1:08 P.M. EDT