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For Immediate Release
Office of the Press Secretary
May 7, 2003
Press Briefing by Ari Fleischer
James S. Brady Press Briefing Room
12:30 P.M. EDT
MR. FLEISCHER: Good afternoon. I have no prepared opening statements, so I'm happy to take your questions.
Q Ari, Senator Robert Byrd yesterday had some pretty tough words for the President and his appearance aboard the USS Lincoln, saying that the Lincoln is not some made-for-TV backdrop for a campaign commercial; also that he questions the motives that a "desk-down President who assumes the garb of a warrior for the purposes of a speech." That and Henry Waxman has also asked the GAO to investigate the cost of what he says is a political event. What's the President's response to Senator Byrd's words and the request for a GAO investigation?
MR. FLEISCHER: Well, more than 100 Americans in our military paid the ultimate price to defend us, and this President is proud to have visited the Abraham Lincoln, to have flown on to it to say thank you in person to those who defend our country. That's the President's focus; that's why he did it. He's proud of the way he did it and he's proud he did it.
Q On that idea, Senator Byrd also said, "This is real life, real lives have been lost. It's an affront to me, it's an affront to the Americans killed or injured in Iraq for the President to exploit the trappings of war for the momentary spectacle of a speech."
MR. FLEISCHER: I think it does a disservice to the men and women of our military to suggest that the President of the United States, or the manner in which the President visited the military would be anything other than the exact appropriate thing to do. And I think that the 5,000 sailors on that ship recognize this for what it was -- the President going out there to say thank you to those who risked their lives.
Q And on the request for a GAO investigation of the cost?
MR. FLEISCHER: Well --
Q The suggestion has been made that the President's political campaign should reimburse taxpayers for the trip.
MR. FLEISCHER: There's not a Republican that Congressman Waxman doesn't want to investigate, and so I just dismiss that as not serious.
Q Ari, is the President disturbed that you have not found weapons of mass destruction, you have not found Saddam Hussein, you have not found bin Laden, you have not found the anthrax dealer? I mean, it seems to me all of these things are a dead-end. What's his feeling?
MR. FLEISCHER: Well, I think the President looks at this at two levels: one is the accomplishment of the overall mission, and, two, some of the component parts of the overall mission. In terms of the fight against those who attacked our country on September 11th, the al Qaeda, harbored by the Taliban, there is no question this has been a successful mission. The abilities of al Qaeda have been severely diminished, and the President is grateful for that happening.
Obviously, Osama bin Laden has not been captured. But as you look at all the operations -- just ask Khalid Sheik Mohammed how he feels about our ability to track people down. So, over time, the President is confident that there will be additional arrests. But this is about more than one man as the President has repeatedly said. The mission against al Qaeda continues.
Vis-a-vis Iraq, clearly this, too, was a successful operation, a successful operation. The Iraqi regime is no more. The threat is no more from the Iraqi regime. And as you can see from the deck of 55 cards, there has already been, in a short period of time, tremendous success in capturing these people or having them be turned in.
As for Saddam Hussein, and as for the latest -- this tape that is in the news, we don't know if the tape is genuine or not. It's being studied. We don't know if he's alive or not.
Q Well, we went to war, didn't we, to find these -- because we said that these weapons were a direct and imminent threat to the United States? Isn't that true?
MR. FLEISCHER: Absolutely. One of the reasons that we went to war was because of their possession of weapons of mass destruction. And nothing has changed on that front at all. We said what we said because we meant it. We had the intelligence to report it. Secretary Powell said it. And I may point out to you, as you may know, there is a news conference at Department of Defense today at 2:00 p.m. to discuss one element in this.
And so we have always had confidence, we continue to have confidence that WMD will be found. He's had a long period of time to hide what he has in a variety of different places, and there is a whole protocol of the search that is underway, that is being conducted in a very methodical fashion.
Q But would he have been able to use them despite shock and awe and so forth, I mean, really made them operable to contend with the U.S. forces?
MR. FLEISCHER: Well, I think one of the reasons that he did not use them was because of the successful manner in which the military campaign was carried out, both in the days leading up to the actual fighting, and then when the fighting began.
Q Ari, there's some reports that Germany now may have offered the United States help in the U.N. resolution to lift the sanctions. Are you optimistic that -- has Germany come forward and offered this kind of help?
MR. FLEISCHER: Well, we will continue to work with all the members of the Security Council on the lifting of the sanctions. The President's position, as you know, is that the sanctions should be lifted. I don't want to speak for the German government. But Germany, I think, has an interest in working closely with the United States, and we want to listen to them and hear their thoughts. So we will continue to pursue this and consult with all our allies.
Q What about Russia? Has there been any signs from Russia that they're more accommodating than they were in the past?
MR. FLEISCHER: I'm not prepared, and I think it's still early at the United Nations' process. No resolution has been offered yet. I think the diplomats continue to consult among each other on the language of the potential resolution. And so I'm not prepared to go down country-by-country on something that's under discussion.
Q Will there be a resolution next week?
MR. FLEISCHER: I'm not going to predict a date. The date that everything is backed up against is June 3rd, when the current terms for the oil-for-food program expire. The diplomats will make that decision when they think the time is right.
Q Would you like to have one before Powell's trip next week to Russia and Germany?
MR. FLEISCHER: The diplomats make the decision when they believe the time is right.
Q Ari, everybody is getting into this trap a little bit about whether WMD will be found, which may not be the issue because, A, you may not find them, they may have been destroyed. Or as the President said, they may have been dispersed. Which raises the question that they could have somehow been spirited out of the county by terrorist groups and the like. What information do you have about that eventuality happening? And isn't it presumptuous to presume that the American people are safer when you can't account for whether weapons have been taken out of the country, or weapons materials have been taken out of the country?
MR. FLEISCHER: Well, I think the real threat here came from a nation state, headed by Saddam Hussein and his henchmen who showed they were willing to use weapons of mass destruction before. That's what --
Q Well, what --
MR. FLEISCHER: That's the basis for saying that people are safer. If you're asking the question, on what basis does the President conclude people are safer, that's the answer.
Q I thought the concern was if it falls into the hands of al Qaeda -- wasn't that the rationale?
MR. FLEISCHER: I'm continuing. The President said that the removal of the regime has diminished the threat and increased our security. And I think that can go -- that's unquestionable. It was, after all, the regime that used weapons of mass destruction in attacks previously. Of course, we always have concerns about anyplace that has weapons of mass destruction passing them along. But given the routing of the Iraqi regime, it certainly makes that much harder to do. Any type of organized efforts, organized movements are harder for the disparate people in the regime to carry out now, those who may be hiding or who are still among the 55. So it's a question --
Q It wasn't too hard for them to get three trailer trucks of American hundred-dollar bills out of the country.
MR. FLEISCHER: It's a question of diminishing their abilities. It's not a question of eliminating the abilities for terrorists to do things -- no. That's why when the President gave the speech on the aircraft carrier, he said that there still are risks, that the fight against terrorism will continue to go on. And that is the case.
But make no mistake; the threat has been diminished. The threat from terrorism has not been eliminated, and the war against terrorism must continue.
Q I know that, but you're making these pronouncements without answering the direct question, which is, what does this administration know about not only what has been found -- you're still checking -- but what weapons materials or actual weapons may have been taken out of the country?
MR. FLEISCHER: Well, we don't have anything concrete to report on that. The President has said that some may have been destroyed, some may have been dispersed -- he didn't indicate to where they may have been dispersed. It certainly is possible they were dispersed to various hiding places throughout Iraq. So it's not a question that we have reliable information to know of.
Q Or outside of Iraq?
MR. FLEISCHER: The President didn't specify when he said where they may have been dispersed to.
Q Was that what he was indicating?
MR. FLEISCHER: He didn't specify, and as I indicated, we have no --
Q Don't we deserve some specificity on this?
MR. FLEISCHER: It may not be knowable with precision. The President has said that they were dispersed, and not all of that is knowable.
Q Ari, the President yesterday talked about his confidence that the weapons of mass destruction programs, evidence of programs would be turned up. And other administration officials have talked about capabilities and programs. Before the war, many administration officials, right up to the President, talked about actual weapons, battlefield munitions, stockpiles, locked and loaded, ready to go, as the administration claimed there were orders to field commanders, you can use them. Does the administration still say that kind of capability will be found in Iraq?
MR. FLEISCHER: I think if you continue to look you'll find a common thread in the statements made by administration officials repeatedly -- and Dr. Rice said in some of the interviews she gave with foreign journalists just this week, where she expressed again the confidence of the administration that WMD will be found. And there are a variety of forms of that, and our statement covers all those forms. You're accurately pointing out that as we learn more about the Iraqi program, we're finding information about just-in-time delivery mechanisms that they have. But that doesn't substitute for the previous statements about finding WMD.
Q So it is still the administration's claim that Iraq had battlefield munitions, WMD weapons ready to go that simply haven't been found yet in Iraq, but they were there?
MR. FLEISCHER: Well, clearly, when you look at many of the things that were found in Iraq in terms of all the chemical protection units and suits that the Iraqi military officials had, the atropine that is used to protect somebody from a chemical weapons attack, all of which were in the hands of Iraqi officials, it's kind of odd that they would have all that equipment for their own forces on the field -- that's typically what you would employ if you're in a chemical environment.
So, no, no changes on it, Terry. It's going to be a long process, and that's what's driving this. And the search is underway. We made no predictions about how long it will take -- it may take a while. And we will continue to develop information; as I indicated, there will be some information forthcoming on what may be known so far.
Q And just one on the visit to the Abraham Lincoln. There are some people who have raised a question about the appearance, that the President arrived on deck in a very dramatic, spectacular fashion, on board a military aircraft wearing full flight suit. And there were some people who were concerned that that might have dissolved or weakened the distinction between civilian control of the military and adopt the civilian -- the President adopting military regalia at the end of a war. Is the President concerned at all about that?
MR. FLEISCHER: Heavens no, that's a non-issue. If you noticed, everybody who came off the Viking wore a flight suit, as you were required to wear a flight suit if you were going to participate in a flight on the Viking. That is what you wear if you're on a Viking.
Q Ari, yesterday the Fed warned about the risk of deflation. Is that a concern of the administration? Is there any evidence of deflation in the economy?
MR. FLEISCHER: I leave those issues up to expert economists. You can hear what the Fed said -- they issued a news release about that topic yesterday. They were not as precise as you were in your question. That's a question that economists will debate.
Q Is it something that you're studying within the administration?
MR. FLEISCHER: Well, the administration always takes a very careful look at any statements that the Federal Reserve issues. Those statements are sometimes cryptic and they require considerable study.
Q Ari, was it the Vice President's idea to have the President land in the plane on the Abraham Lincoln?
MR. FLEISCHER: The Vice President pointed out to the President that he, himself, had done it. So it was a variety of different people --
Q He choppered.
MR. FLEISCHER: Pardon me?
Q He choppered.
MR. FLEISCHER: No, he has also landed on an aircraft that was caught by a tailhook. I don't know if it was a Viking specifically, but he flew on an aircraft onto the aircraft carrier in the past.
Q So it was his idea?
MR. FLEISCHER: Well I think various staff had the idea. I really couldn't tell you. Ultimately, of course, it's always the President's decision, and it was the President's decision to fly out on the Viking; proudly so. So I couldn't tell you with precision.
Q Can I ask you about the Vice President's interview yesterday where he said he would be running again? Has -- again, just saw it this morning -- has the President formally asked him to run again? Have they had that conversation?
MR. FLEISCHER: Yes, I looked into that, and what you have here is basically a reiteration of what you were told last fall. Last fall on November 7th, the President said publicly that he -- that Vice President Cheney will be on the ticket if the President decides to run again. And the President did have a discussion with him about that right around that time last fall.
Q And is he at all concerned about his health, his heart problems?
MR. FLEISCHER: Obviously not.
Q And why does he think he's the right running mate?
MR. FLEISCHER: For the exact same reasons that he thought in 2000. And I don't have anything additional to add beyond that. I think that at the time that the President makes an announcement about his own plans, you may hear more thinking about that.
Q Ari, going back to Elizabeth's first question, could you give a little bit more color as to when and how this was determined for this, what some of your staunchest critics are calling a wonderful photo op that was used for exploitation?
MR. FLEISCHER: In terms of picking the Vice President to be on the ticket?
Q No, her first question.
MR. FLEISCHER: And that was?
Q About the Lincoln. About how -- when was this decided? When hostilities started diminishing, or what? When was this whole decision decided for him to fly in on the Lincoln aircraft carrier?
MR. FLEISCHER: Yes, I think I answered all that in the gaggle on the way out to the Lincoln, so you've got a record of all of that. This was as the President decided he wanted to address the nation and to give a speech to sum up to the country where we were as the conflict wound down. There were discussions of the best venues, the various venues for the President to talk to the American people. And the President thought the very best venue would be in a place where he could thank the men and women who helped make it possible in person.
Q Last week you said the speech was significant because, one, we found out that he started rehearsing in the theater for this, and you said it was significant. But tell me this, because of the significance of this, did he need drama to emphasize the significance of this speech?
MR. FLEISCHER: I think that the suggestion -- the President wanted to go out somewhere to thank the men and women who made this possible in person. They deserve nothing less. These are the men and women who fought a war to keep us free, to protect us and to save us. They deserve no less.
Q Ari, back on Waxman -- Congressman Waxman sent a letter to Lt. Flowers, saying, "There appears to be a conflict between the administration statements of intent that the oil belongs to Iraqis and its actions issuing contracts to U.S. companies like Halliburton to produce and distribute the oil. This conflict should be addressed by the administration in a forthright manner." Is there any concern that at the very least, the administration has a perception problem here, that this could become something where if Waxman continues to call for investigations, continues to ask for information about the contracts, that it could become --
MR. FLEISCHER: No, this is exactly what I said at the beginning. Congressman Waxman has never met a Republican he didn't want to investigate. You can ask -- address all questions to the contracting agencies. And, of course, the oil of Iraq belongs to the Iraqi people. All resources of Iraq belong to the Iraqi people. And the United States, through the Agency for International Development and through other entities, is going to be there to help the Iraqi people. And that is exactly what we're doing.
Q Do you believe that the contract should become public?
MR. FLEISCHER: You need to address those questions to the contracting agencies, not to the White House.
Q The administration has no position?
MR. FLEISCHER: These are contracting matters, not White House matters.
Q Ari, just one more question on the carrier business. If footage of the President's appearance were to appear in his reelection campaign, would it be appropriate then for the -- to have the campaign pay for it?
MR. FLEISCHER: I'm just not going to speculate about what would or would not happen. The campaign is a long way away. That was a wonderful, proud day for our military, for the nation and for the President. And that is forever how he will remember it. He was deeply moved to be there, to arrive the way he did. The men and women of the military were deeply moved to be able to host him. And that's the spirit that this President is going to remember that day, and nothing else will diminish that.
Q Could you clarify for us, I didn't quite understand what you were saying about where we stand with the U.N. Obviously, the Secretary of State is going up there today. Where are we in the process of putting forth the new resolution aiming at the June 3rd deadline?
MR. FLEISCHER: We're in the consultative process. Discussions are underway among diplomats to talk about what comes next after the June 3rd deadline expires. And the position the President has taken is that the sanctions should be removed. There are conversations among diplomats now about how best to accomplish that.
Q Would you hope to have a new resolution passed by the time the oil-for-food expires, so that you don't have any period during which no food can be delivered to the Iraqi people?
MR. FLEISCHER: Well, certainly, you want to have this action done prior to June 3rd.
Q Now, the Russians are proposing that Kofi Annan be given the authority to sell -- to have continued authority to sell Iraqi oil and essentially to control the oil industry, to develop fields and all that sort of thing. Does the U.S. have position on that?
MR. FLEISCHER: Again, the position is sanctions should be removed. Then the decisions about who will be part of the reconstruction will be made by the various parties. And the coalition is leading that effort.
Q One other thing. This afternoon, we'll get the President and President Aznar. Do you have some sense of whether or not there will be an opening statement from them, what we can expect from that, and how long it --
MR. FLEISCHER: There will be an opening statement. Then you'll have a chance to ask some questions.
Q Is that opening statement on the fact that they're both coalition members --
MR. FLEISCHER: I think it will be about the friendship of Spain, the strong support of Spain, and our strong relations with the people of Spain.
Q Is there a broader point, though, to the visit? Is something going to emerge from the state visit, I mean, in terms of new agreements growing forth from the relationship that's developed over the last few months?
MR. FLEISCHER: I think the State Department may have something to say today in regard to designation of terrorist organizations in Spain. The United States and Spain have a very strong relationship, and the President is very grateful to Spain for the leadership they took in helping to free the world from the threat of the Iraqi regime.
Q When you say designation of terrorist organizations, what do you mean? What are you referring to?
MR. FLEISCHER: There is always a review underway of various organizations. The State Department has a list of organizations that are classified as terrorist, and they'll have information today about the completion of their review.
Q Updating that vis-a-vis Spain?
MR. FLEISCHER: That's correct.
Q Your answer to Terry's question on WMD, if I understood it correctly is that there's no change in the administration's prewar assertion that the Iraqi regime had chemical weapons basically ready to go and on a hair trigger or something close to it.
MR. FLEISCHER: Well, the position always was, and what I was saying is the position today, was that they had weapons of mass destruction. I've not made any statements about hair trigger. I don't think if you search a transcript you'll find my using the word "hair" -- (laughter) -- or "hair trigger." Sorry, Ken, that was not addressed at you.
Q Nor would I. (Laughter.) Striking "hair trigger" -- (laughter) -- for a number of reasons, there were statements that those weapons were ready to go, were in the hands of -- well, operational, in effect, that orders had been issued that commanders could use them. And there's no change in that assessment of the situation?
MR. FLEISCHER: No, I clearly the manner in which we conducted the military campaign, that was plain for all to recognize that that was our operation assumption.
Q If that is still the administration's position, that puts you at odds now with the British government, because Defense Secretary Hune gave an interview with the Times of London last week in which he said that the intelligence they now have is that the chemical weapons in possession of Iraq were, in fact, dispersed last fall when the inspectors came back into the country, as part of a way to hide them, and that when the war began, Saddam was essentially unable to retrieve them, and that those weapons were not available for use when the war started. Can you square that --
MR. FLEISCHER: Well, I think there's a deeper context to all of that and to what Secretary Hune would have referred to, or Minister Hune would have referred to, and that's exactly what the President said when he said that some may have been destroyed, some may have been dispersed. But clearly we continue to have concerns as the battle was fought that we could be subject to attacks involving weapons of mass destruction. And one of the reasons it's possible that we did not was because of the very conduct of the war, the warnings that we're issued immediately prior to the war and the manner in which the war was carried out. Thank goodness that we were not.
Q Well, certainly, thank goodness. But Hune's statement to the Times of London was they couldn't use them, they were not available for use when the war started. Was that -- do you agree with that?
MR. FLEISCHER: Well, again, I think you have to refer to the whole context of what he said and the timing of when he said it.
Q He said flatly that they weren't available for use, that they had been dispersed and were simply not able to retrieve them. Is that true?
MR. FLEISCHER: The issue still is, when are we going to find them; not exactly what precise intelligence was available that still could have been differed about on what the Iraqis may or may not have been able to do after the conflict began, and as the military situation on the ground changed Iraqi options and abilities.
Q Ari, Spain was not only a major ally of the United States in trying to get sanctions against Saddam Hussein to work, and then for the military option when Saddam Hussein would not cooperate with the United Nations, but now the word seems to be trying to get the United Nations to lift the sanctions. Spain is a member of the Security Council. Will President Bush ask President Aznar for Spain to play a bigger role in trying to get that passed?
MR. FLEISCHER: Well, I anticipate that that will be an issue that they talk about this evening, the reconstruction of Iraq is on the agenda. They'll talk about it. Spain is a member of the Security Council, so I do anticipate that will come up.
Q And the second question -- if I understand correctly, President Bush has not announced officially he's going for reelection, right?
MR. FLEISCHER: That's correct.
Q Therefore, Vice President Cheney just made the statement he would be available? (Laughter.)
MR. FLEISCHER: It goes right back to what the President said on November 7th, which is that the Vice President will serve if the President decides to run.
Q Ari, on Mideast peace, Sharon is shifting the right of return issue from a negotiating point now to an apparent prerequisite for negotiations. Did this catch the White House off-guard, and is it your feeling that this is just something that -- another poison pill that can be averted with negotiations?
MR. FLEISCHER: I think that all parties have responsibilities. And that's the President's message and that's what he is going to hold all parties to. Israel has responsibilities; the Palestinians have responsibilities; the Arab states have responsibilities. And that will be the guiding point for everything that this President does, and the Secretary does, and Bill Burns from the State Department was just in the region, as we try to move the parties together along the path that the road map lays out.
Q Have you seen any evidence from both parties that they take serious the President's words that this is a goal that he wants accomplished?
MR. FLEISCHER: Certainly. I think you see that in the very fact that the Palestinian Authority is engaged in serious reform. The creation of a new post of Prime Minister is evidence of that. The new cabinet is evidence of that. Prime Minister Sharon only recently reiterated his support for a Palestinian state. If you recall, he did that in the context of a rather divided dispute within his own coalition in the Israeli government, and he was actually challenged from the right, interestingly, about that statement. And he prevailed.
What's important now is to bring the parties together so that their words are matched by their deeds. And that's an often difficult process in the Middle East, but perhaps now the time is the best time we've had in some number of years to make that happen. And the President is dedicated to it.
Q Any invites from either side -- excuse me -- any visits from leaders on either side anytime soon?
MR. FLEISCHER: Never rule those out.
Q Ari, on the aircraft carrier near San Diego last week, the President said declaratively, the war on terrorism will be won. Reviewing actions against al Qaeda, the Taliban, and the government of Iraq a few minutes ago, you said that all that is about a question of diminishing the abilities of terrorist groups, not eliminating their ability to wreak havoc on U.S. or other nations around the world -- which begs the question, how exactly would the President define a victory on the war on terrorism, especially when he said so many times it's an unconventional war, it could go on for a very long time? Will there be a moment we know it's over? Will there be a moment when he can give a speech? And what are the criteria?
MR. FLEISCHER: It's a good question. Clearly, in the current context in which Mr. Gregory asked the question about Iraq, Iraq's abilities and the terrorist abilities have been diminished. The President has said that the tide has turned, and he expresses confidence that we will achieve victory. And of course the President believes that. That's the whole purpose of our efforts.
And just as the President, if you recall, at the beginning of the war with Iraq, traveled to a military base and said, we will be victorious in Iraq, the President sets out that goal, and then charges all in his administration, whether they're a diplomat or whether they're a soldier, to work toward achieving that goal. And that is the push and the direction from the President. I think you'd expect him to say nothing else, nothing less.
Q But, you know, you're talking about chapters, if you will, in a broader thing. And his -- that's why his statements on the carrier were so interesting, because it was so broad and so expansive.
MR. FLEISCHER: I don't know that you could -- I think it's something that, because of the nature of terrorism, it is something that will evolve, in terms of being able to say what constitutes victory. It's kind of like saying that early in mid-1950s, what constitutes victory in the Cold War. I don't think anybody then could have answered you that the victory will come when the Berlin Wall falls and the Soviet Union falls, as well.
There's certain struggles that our nation has historically engaged in, whether it was the Cold War, or whether it's the war on terrorism, that because of the foe, are of a more nebulous nature. And that's what you're seeing here in the war against terrorism. It doesn't lend itself to such an easy definition as a classical historical military battle like the one that just took place in Iraq.
Q Fair point, but in his mind, does he have a definition?
MR. FLEISCHER: No, I think, just as I said, it's a rather more nebulous one -- the definition is when the threat to the United States is diminished to the point where the President feels confident addressing the nation in the war on terrorism the way he did in the campaign against Iraq.
Q But does he envision addressing the nation in that way, to, in effect, declare major combat operations over in the war on terrorism?
MR. FLEISCHER: No, there are no plans to, obviously. The President just said last week that the war on terrorism goes on. And I'm trying to work with Dick's -- what I think is a very interesting question about does a President, in a war of this kind, define the end date?
Q Which is why I was wondering whether we're ever going to --
MR. FLEISCHER: No, there's nothing planned like that. Of course not.
Q Briefly, tax cuts. Senator Grassley is continuing to struggle to come up with enough votes for a package. Are you willing to accept as a price of getting enough of those votes aid to the states?
MR. FLEISCHER: I appreciate the opportunity to negotiate that in public. But, no, this is something that we will continue to work with Congress on. Obviously, the Senate is closely divided. The Senate Finance Committee has narrow margins on it. Aid to the states was not part of the President's original proposal. We will continue to work with Congress.
Q We've got a bunch of governors out there in terrific pain, many of them Republicans. Are you not willing to state from the podium that you're willing to come to their aid if that's what it takes?
MR. FLEISCHER: The President is coming to the aid of the governors in both parties, and the states, and the people of the states, by advocating a plan that creates growth, which is the best way to fill the states' coffers with revenues.
Q Ari, the U.S.-EU relations have gone south during the war in Iraq, and today the WTO has authorized the EU to go ahead with $4 billion in sanctions. If they do decide to go with that, what would that do the U.S.-EU relationship? And where would you say the relationships are headed now that the war is over, are they going up or down?
MR. FLEISCHER: Well, again, just on the premise, I differ about U.S. and EU. There were a couple of countries in the EU that opposed the United States actions, and not the majority of countries. In fact, the majority were with us. In terms of the recent action, this is a matter of some longstanding, this is a result of what's called the FSC -- which is foreign service corporations -- foreign sales corporations. And this deals with a WTO action that struck down United States legislation.
We are consulting with the EU about this matter. We are working with the Congress. The Ways and Means Committee is expected to take up a package that deals with resolving the FSC issues in a manner that's consistent with WTO obligations.
Q Would a WTO dispute -- would it further -- if they're not hurt now, would it hurt the U.S.-EU relations of this or another topic?
MR. FLEISCHER: Clearly, trade is always one of those many issues that allies are going to differ about and remain the best of allies. That's the nature of trade. And I think it's a sign of how good relations are with these countries that we trade in so many different categories of goods and services, that we have issues that we're going to differ about. If relations were bad, there would be no trade. So it's part and parcel of a relationship that is as robust as it is, that we're going to have inevitable trade disputes. And that's why the WTO has set up the mechanisms it has. We are part of the WTO. We respect it, and we'll work within it.
Q The President's landing on the Abraham Lincoln was certainly a morale boost for the veterans of Operation Iraqi Freedom. Does the President plan similar recognition for those who served in Afghanistan? Maybe a visit to Fort Bragg to honor the 82nd Airborne?
MR. FLEISCHER: Well, the President has made numerous visits to military bases to thank the personnel who served in the Afghani theater. The visit to the Abraham Lincoln, although it was a ship at sea, was by no means the first visit or the last visit that this President will proudly take to visit our military, wherever they are, however he decides to arrive there.
Q Another question if I might. Opponents on the President's tax cut always focus on the upper 5 percent of Americans and imply that they're undeserving of a tax cut. When is the administration's response to that going to include the fact that this same 5 percent pays over 50 percent of all the federal taxes, and that the bottom 50 percent pay less than 5 percent?
MR. FLEISCHER: Well, I think there's no question the President believes in across-the-board tax relief because he thinks that all Americans deserve tax relief, and it's the best way to stimulate growth in the economy. So he does not make distinctions among taxpayers in that manner. He doesn't engage in what some have called class warfare. He believes all deserve tax relief; it benefits all.
Q There's some talk that Congressman Hefley and some others in Congress may actually put off base closures. Where does the President stand on having more military base closures, or should it stop at this point?
MR. FLEISCHER: I believe we are still a military that is in the process of transformation. I have not heard specifically what Congressman Hefley will do. But the plans for having a posture around the world, in the United States and abroad, that matches defense needs is still underway. The President thinks that the amount of basing must correspond and match, with the taxpayer dollars in mind, to the needs for our troops to be at those places.
Q I wonder if you have any statements from the podium on two international matters. Did you -- did the President send any message to the South Africans regarding the death of Walter Sisulu? And also, do you have any statements today on the 55th anniversary of Israel?
MR. FLEISCHER: Let me take a look on the South African question. I don't have that here, so I don't know. Let me find out about that.
And, of course, the United States recognizes the importance of today. It's the 55th anniversary of Israel. It expresses its pride for the people of Israel on this important occasion. And I will take a look and see if there's any other formal notifications that have gone out and advise you.
Q There are reports the President and Ariel Sharon will be on the podium together next week. Is that confirmed?
MR. FLEISCHER: Are you referring to something that was in the Washington Post yesterday?
Q -- said they may --
MR. FLEISCHER: Yes, I noticed that there was something in the Style section of The Washington Post yesterday, and they did not check with the White House before writing it. So that information is actually inaccurate.
Q It's not going to happen?
MR. FLEISCHER: It was an inaccurate report. They did not check with the White House before they wrote it.
Q So it isn't going to happen?
MR. FLEISCHER: No, the President on that night has an event that will be announced shortly. He had other plans with other foreign leaders that night, incidently -- coincidentally, I should say.
Q One quick note on the carrier. This is not my question, but some of my Navy pilot friends that the pilot that flew the President out is lucky he didn't have to swim home, because he caught the #4 wire instead of the #3. (Laughter.) Anyway, my question --
MR. FLEISCHER: Ivan, I would remind you they have the ability to precisely target a lot of different places, and they have coordinates for that seat. I would not want to say anything about Navy flying skills. They all appear excellent to me.
Q It's called a controlled crash, as you know, by those who fly it. But, anyway, the $1 billion and chump change that Qusay apparently took from the bank of Iraq, did it, in fact, cross the border into Syria? Are we tracking it? Where is it now, if we know? And also, is it true, even though the French deny it, that they issued passports at Damascus to some high-ranking officials?
MR. FLEISCHER: I got both these questions yesterday. I don't have any update since yesterday's answers.
Q Ari, there was this unusual scene off the coast of Florida yesterday with three Cuban refugees who refused assistance, but got some level of assistance to actually come to shore. And now, my understanding is that they will be allowed to stay in the country. Was there anybody in the administration who ordered that scenario to take place the way it did? And what message do you think it sends to other potential Cuban refugees?
MR. FLEISCHER: I'm going to refer anything on this to Department of Homeland Security. As you know, under the new Department of Homeland Security, they have agencies that have jurisdiction over these matters that are involved in this and have more facts and specifics about what took place on the water and on the ground.
Q Is there anything you can say, though, on camera?
MR. FLEISCHER: No, that's the extent of what I have on that. It's a matter that DHS is handling. They have more information.
Q Can I just clear something up? My understanding is that the Lincoln was about 30 miles off shore.
MR. FLEISCHER: That's correct.
Q Which is, about -- given transit speed, piloting speed, about two hours away from the dock. If the President wanted to meet the sailors where they were, why didn't he meet them in San Diego? Why was the ship kept at sea for an extra afternoon and evening and a night?
MR. FLEISCHER: It was not kept at sea for an extra afternoon, evening or a night. The carrier was always, always, always scheduled to come back on May 2nd. And could you imagine what would have happened if it arrived earlier? Sailors would have gotten off the ship without their family being there. People made plans to attend a May 2nd arrival from different parts of the country. They don't necessarily arrive, ready to go, on the 1st, if they're told it's the 2nd. That was an issue that we talked about on the ship. The date always was May 2nd, and they keep the date that they promised the sailors and their families.
Q Ari, a follow-up on that please, a follow-up on that?
MR. FLEISCHER: Go ahead, Lester.
Q Considering Senator Byrd's charging the President with flamboyant showmanship on the Lincoln, what is the President's reaction to what an editor of West Virginia's Charleston Gazette noted this morning are so many dozens of buildings, roads, statues, bridges, locks, dams, hospitals and even a river named by Robert C. Byrd, that there have been signs posted, the Robert C. Byrd telephone poll and the Robert C. Byrd parking meter? And I have one follow-up.
MR. FLEISCHER: Why don't you ask your follow-up first. (Laughter.)
Q Doesn't the President -- don't you have some reaction to this showmanship business?
MR. FLEISCHER: I think we've exhausted that topic.
Q The Dixie Chicks -- (laughter) --
MR. FLEISCHER: Speaking of topics that have not been exhausted. (Laughter.)
Q The Dixie Chicks, a country music trio, has suffered a decline in sales and radio playtime due to their lead singer's comment in London that she is ashamed the President is from Texas. And my question: Is the President equally ashamed that the Dixie Chicks are from Texas?
MR. FLEISCHER: Lester, I would be ashamed if you were acknowledging that you did not watch the President's moving interview with Tom Brokaw in which he answered that question. So we'll be --
Q Who's Tom Brokaw? (Laughter.)
MR. FLEISCHER: So we'll be happy -- (laughter) -- be happy to provide you a tape.
Q Thank you.
END 1:10 P.M. EDT
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