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Home > News & Policies > Press Secretary Briefings

For Immediate Release
Office of the Press Secretary
February 23, 2004

Press Briefing by Scott McClellan
The James S. Brady Briefing Room

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12:43 P.M. EST

MR. McCLELLAN: Good afternoon. I want to begin with some open remarks on an important issue. The President is providing unprecedented leadership and commitment of resources to fight the pandemic of AIDS in the world's most afflicted countries. Secretary of State Powell and Secretary of Health and Human Services Thompson and Ambassador and U.S. Global AIDS Coordinator Randall Tobias today are sending Congress our five-year strategy for the President's emergency plan for AIDS relief.

As of today, just one month after Congress appropriated funds for the President's emergency plans for AIDS relief, $350 million is going out the door and into the hands of service providers who are bringing relief to those who are suffering in some of the hardest-hit countries in the world.

These initial resources are going to organizations that can quickly get help to those who are suffering, because they are already providing prevention, care and treatment services focused on the key objectives of the President's emergency plan, including anti-retroviral therapy for AIDS-infected persons; HIV/AIDS prevention programs through abstinence for youth; care programs for orphans and vulnerable children affected by HIV/AIDS; and safe medical injection and safe blood programs.

While these activities will supplement ongoing United States government bilateral activities in order to take advantage of existing programs that can be rapidly scaled up, the next round of funding will place increased emphasis on also encouraging new partners in our efforts to fight AIDS. We expect awards for the next round of funding to begin going out in the next few months.

All these efforts are working towards the President's goals of treating 2 million people with anti-retroviral therapy; preventing 7 million new infections; and caring for 10 million individuals infected or affected by HIV.

And with that, I will be glad to take your questions. John.

Q So how loud was cheering yesterday when Ralph Nader announced he was getting into the race? (Laughter.)

MR. McCLELLAN: John, I think that's all part of our democracy. It's been interesting to watch some the reaction. The great thing is that, in the end, it's the voters who get to decide.

Q Are you looking at what happened in the 2000 race as an indicator of what could happen this year?

MR. McCLELLAN: John, I think we'll leave the political analysis to all the pundits.

Go ahead, Goyal.

Q Scott, can you clarify the term -- Governor Schwarzenegger was asked a question the other day that everybody in the U.S. who has been living, and citizen of the United States for at least 20 years, should be, or can run for the President of the United States? In India, anybody can run for president or prime minister.

MR. McCLELLAN: The President actually was asked about that, I believe it was a couple months ago, when he did an interview with People Magazine. And he said it's something we probably ought to look at.

Q And my other question is that some people are being released from the Cuba base. There are at least -- 82 Pakistanis are being held, at least, now. Are they being released because of pressure from their governments, or those people are no longer threat, and those who are being held are still threat?

MR. McCLELLAN: No, actually, if you'll recall, Secretary Rumsfeld talked about the review process that we have in place for those enemy combatants who are being detained at Guantanamo Bay. And we have been working on a case-by-case basis with some other countries about some specific individuals. And those countries to which some of the detainees have been returned have assured us that they will make sure that they no longer pose a threat to the United States, or to our friends and allies.

Q Scott, on the President --

MR. McCLELLAN: Jacobo, go ahead.

Q Yes, this morning you spoke about --

MR. McCLELLAN: Join us, Jim. (Laughter.)

Q -- about the Haitian situation. What is the latest the White House knows? And what else are they contemplating, besides sending 50 Marines to safeguard the embassy and --

MR. McCLELLAN: Well, this is a political situation that requires a political solution. We continue to deplore the ongoing violence and we regret the continuing loss of life in Haiti. The United States is strongly committed to a peaceful, negotiated, constitutional and democratic solution of this crisis and we're working closely with the government of Haiti and the political opposition toward that goal.

As you are aware, there is a mission that went to Haiti this weekend. Assistant Secretary Noriega represented the United States in that delegation and we met with the government of Haiti, we met with the political opposition. We're still waiting to hear back from the political opposition. We're hopeful that they will agree to the consensus plan that emerged from the United States, the CARICOM nations, the Organization of American States, France, Canada and others who had been working on that consensus plan last week.

Q What are the numbers of Americans, as far as you know, that are still there? Because I know you put out a warning for them to leave the country.

MR. McCLELLAN: The State Department could probably give you that information. They did put out a travel advisory encouraging people to leave Haiti, Americans to leave Haiti. And as you are aware, too, there is a team from the Pentagon, at the request of Ambassador Foley, our Ambassador in Port-au-Prince. He made a request for a security team to come to the embassy, to protect the embassy and protect the people in the embassy. And they are on their way to Haiti now; they will arrive there this afternoon.

Q A follow-up on Haiti -- in particular, the boat people. The President said on November 7, 2002, that the immigration laws ought to be the same for Haitians and everybody else, except the Cubans, and the difference, of course, is that we don't send people back to Cuba because they're going to be persecuted.

Well, what more proof do you need --

MR. McCLELLAN: April, I think you're referring to a different situation. At that time it was involving a specific --

Q Cubans versus Haitians and the boat people --

MR. McCLELLAN: -- it was involving a specific incident. And, yes, the President's remarks there stand. But the migration policy of the United States is very clear, and we have made it very clear that we have a plan in place to stop any boats and we will return people to their country of origin.

Q But, Scott, these people are risking shark-infested waters versus staying in a country where they cannot be protected by their own President. And even President Bush talks about compassionate conservatism in his religion. Why not?

MR. McCLELLAN: And, April, we are providing a significant amount of humanitarian assistance to the people of Haiti. And we are working to bring -- we are working an ongoing diplomatic efforts, we are actively engaged in ongoing diplomatic efforts to bring about a political solution to the situation in Haiti. That's where our efforts are focused. We continue to deplore the violence going on in Haiti. We regret the loss of life. And the United States is actively engaged in ongoing diplomatic efforts to bring about a solution.

Q Well, on another topic, there's a congressman who says he's answering the call, President Bush's call to simplify tax issues. Congressman Chaka Fattah is talking about just eliminating all taxes and coming up with a somewhat sales tax, a 1 percent sales tax that he says will cover everything -- it will cover government expenses, as well as fix the deficit -- a 1 percent sales tax on anything $500 and above. He's trying to talk to the Department of Treasury. What is the White House thinking about this?

MR. McCLELLAN: Well, I think the tax relief that the President advocated and passed does make our tax code more simple and fairer for Americans. If you look at what he proposed and what he passed, it brings about a simpler and fairer tax system for the American people. It makes the tax burden on middle and lower-income Americans more fair, and by expanding the child credit and reducing the marriage penalty and other measures, it makes it more simple.

Q So you're not even thinking about this one, even as he's trying to present it?

MR. McCLELLAN: Well, what we're focused on is continuing to strengthen our economy and create as robust an environment as possible for job creation. And so we continue to call on Congress to act to make the tax cuts permanent. The last thing we need to do is to provide uncertainty to the American people and raise -- and/or raise taxes.

Q Just to follow up on that. It's your position that the tax code is simpler now than it was when the President came into office?

MR. McCLELLAN: The President has committed to making the tax code more simple and fairer.

Q Well, is it simpler now than when he came to office -- fewer pages, fewer regulations?

MR. McCLELLAN: Because of the tax relief we passed, yes.

Q Does the President believe that the International Court of Justice is the appropriate venue to determine the legality of the Israeli security fence?

MR. McCLELLAN: We've previously expressed our opinion on this issue, along with other Western countries. A couple of weeks ago, we sent a brief saying that the International Court of Justice should not be involved in this issue. It is our view that this is a political issue and it should be resolved through dialogue and negotiation between the parties. And so we're not participating in that.

Q Why is it a political issue? It's an international -- violation of international accords.

MR. McCLELLAN: And, Helen, we continue to remain actively engaged in the Middle East, working to bring about the President's two-state vision.

Q Scott, the U.N. said today -- Lakhdar Brahimi said that elections in Iraq couldn't happen until the end of 2004, perhaps early 2005. Is that what the Bush administration timetable is at this point? And what happens between June 30th and that time?

MR. McCLELLAN: I think the coalition and the Iraqi Governing Council, the United Nations and the Iraqi people all support the transfer of sovereignty by June 30th, as well as direct elections at a later date. We are all in agreement about the feasibility of elections before that date. But we all share a commitment to moving forward as quickly as possible on elections. And we appreciate the work of Secretary General Annan and Mr. Brahimi, and we are supportive of recommendations that they have made in that regard.

We haven't been able to review all the specifics of the recommendations put forward today. We will take a look at them. But it is our strong belief that the United Nations has a vital role to play. They were playing a vital role and we believe they can continue to play a vital role in the future of the Iraqi people.

Go ahead, Ken. I'll come to you next, David.

Q Following up on John's opening question, there was some back-and-forth this weekend between spokespeople for the President and also Senator Kerry. Is the President open to possibly debating very early in the season, sometime between the primaries and the conventions?

MR. McCLELLAN: One, here at this podium, I remain focused on talking about the President's priorities that he is working to accomplish on behalf of the American people. Obviously, there is still a Democratic primary process that's ongoing at this point. There will be plenty of time to debate the differences. And the President will look forward to debating the choices that the American people have. But in terms of specifics, I think you need to address those questions to the campaign.

Q So he will vote for a debate?

MR. McCLELLAN: The President looks forward to, at the appropriate time, debating and discussing the choices the American people face.

Q Can you say, Scott, whether or not the President is aware that he was challenged to a debate over the weekend, and whether or not he's acknowledged it, and --

MR. McCLELLAN: I think the President is fully aware of the political events that are going on.

Q On the 9/11 Commission, why -- you've indicated that the President has agreed to a private meeting with the co-chairs of the commission. Why is the President unwilling to meet with the entire commission? And why, at this point, is he unwilling to provide public testimony? What's his position on this?

MR. McCLELLAN: A couple of things. One, let me get to the first part of your question. The chairman and vice-chairman of the 9/11 Commission sent a letter requesting a private session with the President. The President agreed to the request. We believe that all the necessary information could be provided in that private meeting. In terms of the actual details, we are still discussing those details for that private session with the chairman and vice-chairman. That's where it stands at this point.

Q How is that going? (Laughter.)

MR. McCLELLAN: It's ongoing; it's going.

Q It doesn't appear like he is willing to sit down to offer testimony to the entire commission, and I'm wondering why not?

MR. McCLELLAN: I think the President believes that all the necessary information they need can be provided in a private session.

Q Why --

Q Then why is he appearing?

Q Why -- hold on, Helen. What about -- why not a public session?

MR. McCLELLAN: Well, I think that he feels that everything can be provided in that private meeting, that's why.

Q Right, but they apparently feel differently, so --

MR. McCLELLAN: Well, I'm not sure -- speaking for the entire commission, but the chairman and vice chairman requested the private meeting. And that's what we're moving forward on discussing with them right now.

Q Would it be inappropriate, in your view, in the President's view, for him to offer testimony under oath to this commission?

MR. McCLELLAN: Well, look, the President will be pleased to talk to them in a private session. And that's where it stands right now.

Q So you're not answering the oath question?

MR. McCLELLAN: I'm sorry?

Q You're not -- does he think it's inappropriate to be under oath for something like this?

MR. McCLELLAN: The President is going to share with them what information he knows, and he's pleased to do it.

Q So he'll do it under oath, if necessary?

MR. McCLELLAN: I don't know if that's necessary. I think he can accomplish it all in private meeting, and provide the commission the necessary information in that format.

Q But he's -- but he's against anything being made public?

MR. McCLELLAN: Well, I don't know that I said that. They will obviously have a private meeting with him and have an opportunity to discuss with the President information that is relevant to their work.

Q Can they share that testimony then?

MR. McCLELLAN: And we're working all the details. I don't know the specifics, David, of all the details that are involved in this. Obviously, we still are able -- we're still working to discuss those details with them. But, certainly, this is information that they would use in preparing their report to the American people. So I expect that they would share information.

Q With the President starting to do more campaign events and activities, could you please lay out for the public the guidelines that the White House and the campaign use, in terms of splitting the cost, whether it's a trip to the convention center tonight, or our two-state visit on Thursday?

MR. McCLELLAN: You're asking me to use my legal expertise, which I'm not a lawyer, but let me just tell you that --

Q Just some general guidelines.

MR. McCLELLAN: Yes, and I'll be glad to provide you with more information if that's what you need. But the practices that we are following are consistent with all the applicable rules and laws governing elections, and they're consistent with practices of previous administrations.

Q Scott, on that point if I could --

MR. McCLELLAN: Jim. Jim was trying to get in there. I'll come to you next.

Q All right.

Q The President, we are told, will present himself as a candidate for reelection tonight. How would you describe the speech he's going to give?

MR. McCLELLAN: Well, I think the campaign has described the speech to some extent. But I would just say that -- and I don't know that I'd necessarily agree with the way you started your question, but this is a critical period for our nation and for our future. This nation faces big challenges, and the President has worked to meet those challenges. The President remains focused on our biggest priorities. This is a time when Americans are faced with clear choices about serious challenges this nation faces, and the President believes it's important for the American people to have an honest discussion about those choices that we face. And the choice is very clear. And we will continue to confront the big priorities facing the American people.

The two biggest priorities continue to be winning the war on terrorism, and strengthening our economy even more. And that's where we ought to have an honest discussion about the decisions and choices that we are making. The President has outlined a positive, optimistic agenda for America's future. And he is proud of our record of accomplishment to address those big challenges we face. So he will focus on his record of achievement and his positive vision for the future.

Q You're not suggesting that tonight's speech is not a political one in which he is essentially beginning an effort to make his case --

MR. McCLELLAN: I think -- no, it's just the first part you said, announcing his reelect. I think it's well-known that he is obviously running for reelection. So that's all I was stating with that.

Q Yes, but doesn't this represent a shift that the President will now --

MR. McCLELLAN: I think the campaign talked about how they're accelerating some of their efforts. And he will certainly tonight talk about the clear choices that the American people face going forward at this critical period in our nation's history.

Q Do you know whether or not he intends to make a formal announcement that he will seek reelection?

MR. McCLELLAN: I would leave those questions to the campaign to address.

Q Scott, on Thursday, is that a policy trip, a presidential trip? Or is that a campaign trip?

MR. McCLELLAN: There's both. I think he's got a conversation on the economy. We'll try to get you in there. (Laughter.) And then he's got some --

Q Can't wait. (Laughter.)

MR. McCLELLAN: And then he has some campaign events, as well.

Q And back to Ralph Nader, when you said this is all part of our democracy, so are you welcoming Ralph Nader into the race?

MR. McCLELLAN: Well, that's why I said --

Q -- because part of our democracy is --

MR. McCLELLAN: That's why I said -- one, it's up to the voters to decide in the end. And, two, we'll leave all that political analysis to the pundits and others.

Q But are you upset that he's in the race?

MR. McCLELLAN: Look, that's -- it's up to the voters to make their determination come next November.

Go ahead.

Q Scott, the President said many -- many times in the last few years that the tax cuts that he pushed through Congress would create jobs. And in his remarks to the governors this morning, he said the unemployment rate, which is now 5.6, is a good number. That raised some eyebrows in the --

MR. McCLELLAN: No, he said, given the -- given the circumstances of what we've been through. The unemployment rate is declining. And it's moving in the right direction. And I would remind you that it's below the average of the '70s, '80s, and '90s. And it continues to go on a steady decline from 6.3 percent in June 2003, where it was.

Q But some of the governors said that there was concern, from both sides of the aisle, raised in that session about the quality of jobs that the economy is gaining; that the manufacturing jobs that have disappeared were pretty good-paying jobs, and that the jobs that are being created now so far aren't at that level. Is that a concern that the President shares?

MR. McCLELLAN: Well, he's concerned about the loss of any job. And the President is not satisfied, because there are still people looking for work who cannot find a job. And I would remind you what the President said in his remarks to the governors. The economy is strong and growing stronger, and it is moving in the right direction. But there is more to do to create a more robust environment for job creation.

We've seen 366,000 new jobs created in the last five months. We've seen the unemployment continue its steady decline -- it is now at the lowest point in two years. So things are moving in the right direction. But we continue to need to take additional steps to create as robust an environment for job creation as possible. That's why he's calling on Congress to act on his six-point plan. The last thing we need to do is turn back from the direction we are moving. We continue to need to build upon the efforts that the President has undertaken previously.

Q California's Democrat State Attorney General, William Lockyer, has refused to obey Governor Schwarzenegger's direction to, "take immediate steps to obtain a definitive judicial resolution of this controversy," because San Francisco's actions and the Governor's words present an imminent risk to civil order. And my first question, why won't the President, under his obligation in Article II, Section 3, of the Constitution, send federal agents to stop any more of these now 3,000 violations of state law by the mayor?

MR. McCLELLAN: Well, I think, one, the governor of the state of California is working to address this issue, as you pointed out. It continues to be troubling that there are people who are ignoring the law. And there was a Superior Court ruling the other day that allowed these licensings of same-sex marriages to go forward. The President is committed to protecting and defending the sanctity of marriage. And he views some of these events as deeply troubling. And he continues to look very closely at this issue. Those events are certainly having an influence on his decision.

Q Your explanation, that the President is giving this issue serious thought, is called, "politically foolhardy hesitancy that makes true believers think he's not with us," by Bay Buchanan. Gary Bauer says, "There is nothing else on the President's agenda that comes close to the polling numbers on this." And Tony Perkins, of Family Research Council, calls this a tremendous cultural crisis. And my question --

MR. McCLELLAN: I was wondering if you were getting to the question.

Q How long is the President going to fail to take action against what the governor recognizes as an imminent risk to civil order? And how many millions of evangelical votes does he expect to lose by this hesitation?

MR. McCLELLAN: Les, this is a principled decision for the President of the United States. His views are very clear. Marriage is an enduring institution of this country, and he is committed to protecting the sanctity of marriage. He has made it very clear that he is committed to doing what is legally necessary to protect and defend the sanctity of marriage. He continues to look at this issue very seriously, and it's an issue that he feels strongly about and he will stand on principle on this issue.

Q When will there be any action, Scott, any action?

MR. McCLELLAN: As I said, he continues to look at it very closely and he is committed to doing what is legally necessary to protect the sanctity of marriage.

Q I have two questions, if I may. The President wants to bring Hispanics from south of the border to this country to work. But the latest unemployment figures show 7.3 percent of Hispanics in America are unemployed. Why not put them to work first?

MR. McCLELLAN: Well, I think you're mischaracterizing the President's proposal, first of all. The proposal on immigration that you mentioned was relating to a temporary worker program where you would be filling jobs that Americans cannot be found to fill first.

Go ahead.

Q We know the President married well and we know he has trouble with English, but does he really have big biceps? (Laughter.)

MR. McCLELLAN: No, but you did bring up an issue that the President feels strongly about, and that is to promote healthy choices. And it's something he has been very committed to, leading by example on.

Q This is on Iraq. Last week, Senator Tom Daschle told an audience in South Dakota, "I give the overall effort real credit," in talking about the war in Iraq.

MR. McCLELLAN: Right, I saw those remarks.

Q Would you interpret his statement as a significant endorsement of administration policy, considering his own party and most of the media coverage says that the war in Iraq is going so badly?

MR. McCLELLAN: Well, I think there is a growing recognition that a free and peaceful Iraq is vital to our nation's interests. A free and peaceful Iraq will help bring about stability and peace in a very volatile region of the world. This is a generational commitment the President is making to the Middle East, and Iraq can be an important step in moving toward freedom and democracy throughout the greater Middle East. And the President is strongly committed to making sure that we stay the course and finish the job in Iraq, for that very reason.

Q Don't you think Daschle's breaking ranks with his own party to essentially praise the war effort in Iraq is significant?

MR. McCLELLAN: Well, again, I don't want to interpret everybody's remarks, but I did see those remarks. We are making important progress in Iraq. It's very work that we are -- have undertaken. We are working closely with the Iraqi people and leaders in Iraq to bring about a peaceful, democratic and free Iraq.

Q Scott, there was a report earlier today that the White House is considering lifting the air ban on Libya. Do you have anything on that?

MR. McCLELLAN: Well, if there's any additional announcements to make, I expect they would come out of the State Department first. The President's views on that are very clear and we continue to see progress being made by the government of Libya and we have said, as that progress is made, it will lead toward better relations.

Q Scott, has the President ever said whether or not he thinks it's appropriate for his Vice President to have gone on a duck hunting trip with a Supreme Court Justice, when Mr. Cheney has a case coming before the Supreme Court?

MR. MCCLELLAN: Well, one, I think you ought to address that question to the Vice President's office if you have a specific question about trips that he may take. I think that Justice Scalia has previously addressed that matter, as well.

Q I'm just wondering if the President has an opinion on the behavior of his Vice President?

MR. MCCLELLAN: I haven't heard a discussion about it.

Go ahead.

Q Scott, there's an appointee in the Veterans Administration, John Thomas Birch, who has bought up domain names on the internet, Veterans for Kerry, and such. He has helped -- he helped the President in the 2000 campaign on veterans issues, and I wonder if Mr. Birch is acting on behalf of the campaign, if he's acting in concert with you, with --

MR. MCCLELLAN: I don't know anything about those activities. You might want to address that question to the campaign.

Go ahead.

Q Is there anything being done to help U.S. companies invested in Haiti?

MR. MCCLELLAN: I'm sorry, what?

Q Is anything being done to help U.S. companies that are invested in Haiti?

MR. MCCLELLAN: To help those companies?

Q That may --

MR. MCCLELLAN: Well, I think what we're doing to help in Haiti is to bring about a peaceful political solution to the current crisis. That's what we are doing.

Q -- losses because of --

MR. MCCLELLAN: Well, our focus right now -- well, one, our focus right now is on working with nations in the Caribbean and the Organization of American States and France and Canada and others to bring about a peaceful resolution to the situation in Haiti. We also are working on the humanitarian assistance to the Haitian people who are in need right now. That's where our focus is right now.

Q Thank you.

MR. MCCLELLAN: Thanks.

END 1:10 P.M. EST