For Immediate Release
Office of the Press Secretary
December 13, 2004
Press Briefing by Scott McClellan
The James S. Brady Press Briefing Room
12:50 P.M. EST
MR. McCLELLAN: Good afternoon. I don't have anything to begin with, so I'll go straight to your questions.
Q I'd like to take the Kerik issue back up and ask you more specifically whether you think Bernard Kerik lied to those who are vetting his nomination, particularly about his domestic help?
MR. McCLELLAN: No, we have no reason to believe that. And I think you heard from Mayor Giuliani and Commissioner Kerik, themselves, and they both indicated that it was a mistake. And the President respects the decision that Commissioner Kerik made and we wish him well.
Q Does the President, or do others think that Commissioner Kerik took the process of vetting his background too lightly?
MR. McCLELLAN: David, I think Commissioner Kerik has addressed this matter. Our focus now is on moving forward to name a new nominee as quickly as possible. That's where the President is focused right now. We have a thorough vetting process in place. It's a process that looks closely at a candidate's professional, personal and financial background. And based on our solid record on nominations, we remain confident in that process.
Q Does the White House feel like it made any mistakes here at all?
MR. McCLELLAN: David, when you go through the vetting process you do a lot of independent research yourself. You also look to the candidate to provide you with the information you need to complete that vetting process. But we are moving forward now to name a new nominee. I would point out that this vetting process is something that continues once the intention to nominate is made. And it was through this vetting process that this issue came to the attention of Commissioner Kerik, and he brought it to our attention and he indicated that he should have brought it to our attention sooner.
Q So he brought this on himself, is what you're saying.
MR. McCLELLAN: No, I'm not saying that, at all. I think I would describe it the way that I did.
Q You said you don't want to go into particulars, but aside from the immigration question, are you confident that you are aware of all the issues that -- involving Mr. Kerik, that might have --
MR. McCLELLAN: It's a very broad question, Terry. There are certainly some speculations going on, but that's all it is, is speculation.
Q Well, like, there was something that came up about a suit, or about a civil dispute. Were you aware of that?
MR. McCLELLAN: Terry, Commissioner Kerik brought to our attention last week that he had an issue that was of concern and he said to us that based on that issue, he was withdrawing his name from consideration. We respect that decision; now we are moving forward. I understand your interest in looking back, but we are moving forward to name a new nominee as quickly as possible.
The President announced his intention to nominate Commissioner Kerik because of his record when it comes to overseeing the Rikers correction facility and transforming that corrections facility; and his record as commissioner of the New York Police Department in transforming the New York Police Department; and his record of commitment to winning the war on terrorism that was first seen firsthand when he was one of the first ones on the scene at Ground Zero, leading the response and recovery efforts in the immediate aftermath of the September 11th attacks.
This was a matter, in terms of his nomination, this matter relating to the nanny came to his attention more clearly last week and he indicated he should have brought it to our attention sooner. This matter is now an issue that is closed, as far as we're concerned. We're looking forward on who the new nominee will be for the Secretary of the Department of Homeland Security.
Q As far as you're concerned, though, there was only this one issue that disqualified him?
MR. McCLELLAN: It was his decision to withdraw himself. We were moving forward --
Q Right, I understand that. But there was nothing else that you're aware of that would have affected his --
MR. McCLELLAN: We were moving forward with the nomination process when this issue was brought to our attention by Commissioner Kerik, and it was his decision to withdraw his name from consideration.
Q Can you just explain to us, since it seems as though he had continued to have broad support among Democrats and Republicans, regardless of these issues, can you just tell us for the record why that would be a disqualifying factor for him as the Secretary of Homeland Security?
MR. McCLELLAN: Well, Commissioner Kerik is the one who made the decision to withdraw his name. And he indicated that he did not want to be a distraction. And he felt that this would be a significant distraction from the process. So I would refer back to what he said about this decision that he came to.
Q Did the White House agree that it would be a disqualifying factor?
MR. McCLELLAN: John, it was a decision he came to, and as far as we're concerned, we respect his decision. And this matter has been now put to rest.
Q There's some chatter among Republicans who I've spoken with today, who would prefer not to have their names publicly disclosed, who say that the nanny problem is a convenient umbrella to disqualify him from consideration, and one that would not necessarily bring into the open the other problem that he had. But it was, in fact, those other problems that were the problem. What would you say to that?
MR. McCLELLAN: I'm not going to try to speculate from this podium. As I said, there is speculation out there, but I'm not going to try to speculate from this podium. I think we've been through this issue, and we've addressed it.
Q Tell us something about the vetting process. Had Kerik answered written questions prior to the announcement?
MR. McCLELLAN: There's a lot of information that candidates provide to us. There's a lot of questions asked to nominees. I'm not going to get into any specific details regarding an individual nominee, because we want to be respectful of those individuals, and be respectful of the process that we have in place. But it is a thorough vetting process that we go through.
Q Well, can you give us some kind of time line? When was Kerik told he was under serious consideration? How long did the vetting process go along? We're getting the impression that it all happened pretty quickly.
MR. McCLELLAN: That would be an inaccurate impression if you have that, because this was something that was a matter of weeks, not days, that we were going through this vetting process.
Q What have you heard about Sean O'Keefe's plans?
MR. McCLELLAN: Administrator O'Keefe has previously indicated to us that he is planning on leaving. There's really not more to announce at this time until we receive a letter from him. But once we do that, then maybe we can have more to say at that time. But he is someone the President believes has done a great job over at NASA, and we appreciate the work that he has done.
Q Why does the White House want to get rid of ElBaradei ?
MR. McCLELLAN: Helen, I don't think that's the view we've expressed.
Q Really? What is your view?
MR. McCLELLAN: I think the view that we've expressed is what Secretary Powell has publicly said, in terms of United Nations organizations and the terms of service for the leaders of those United Nations organizations. There was what is referred to as the "Geneva Rule" that was agreed to in Vienna. And the countries there agreed that the heads of those organizations should only serve two terms. And that remains our position.
Q So you're not actively trying to get rid of him?
MR. McCLELLAN: Well, we remain committed to the agreement that was reached in Vienna, where heads of United Nations organizations should only serve two terms.
Q But you also have a lot of disagreements with him, isn't that so, that would help to remove him?
MR. McCLELLAN: We work very closely with Dr. ElBaradei to address proliferation issues and address issues of nuclear weapons programs in countries like Iran and North Korea. And we will continue to do that during this term.
Q Would you like him to stay on?
MR. McCLELLAN: Our view is to support the agreement that was reached in Vienna, and that is that heads of U.N. organizations should serve two terms.
Q What about reports that you eavesdropped on --
MR. McCLELLAN: Should not serve -- no more than two terms, I should say.
Q What do you have to say about reports that a number of administration officials were looking at the transcripts of eavesdropping on his phone conversations?
MR. McCLELLAN: As you know, Jim, I don't get into discussing intelligence matters from this podium.
Q But I'm asking you not about intelligence matters, but about people looking at transcripts, and --
MR. McCLELLAN: And, Jim, I've seen the reports, and I just don't get discussing any of those reports. That should not be read one way or the other.
Q While we're on things that you don't like to talk about, let me ask you about the story about spy satellites and the remarks by some senators alluding to the existence of a secret spy satellite program and questioning whether or not it was worth the money. Does the administration have any problem with the comments that were made on Capitol Hill?
MR. McCLELLAN: Jim, I can't get into discussing classified intelligence matters. The matters you're referring to are in regards to the intelligence budget. Those are classified matters; I'm not going to get into discussing them. I will say that the President's number one obligation is to the safety and security of the American people. It's a responsibility he takes very seriously, and we will continue to do everything we can to protect the American people.
Q Do you believe that anyone on Capitol Hill has violated the strictures on classified information?
MR. McCLELLAN: I haven't seen anything that's been brought to my attention to suggest that.
Q Can you enlighten us as to whether your brother plans to stay on as head of Medicare ? And, while we're at it, whether you plan to stay on --
MR. McCLELLAN: Well, we never speculate on personnel matters, and I wouldn't do that on family members, either. I think that the President believes Dr. McClellan is an outstanding member of this team and he's doing a great job overseeing the Medicare program. He's been there for about eight months now; we're going through some historic reforms. And that's the way the President views it. In fact, he'll be over here shortly to update the President on some of the Medicare reforms that we're putting in place.
Q Will you stay with us?
MR. McCLELLAN: I never speculate on personnel matters. And I work at the patience of my wife. (Laughter.)
Q On Kofi Annan -- because you said, two terms -- how many terms has Kofi Annan had as head of the U.N.?
MR. McCLELLAN: Right now his term, his second term is not up until 2006, I believe.
Q Forgive me if this has been asked, but Tom Ridge told the President or had discussions with the President last summer that he was probably going to leave. So can you explain why the -- Kerik's nomination happened so -- it took so long? I mean, you had a long process here for -- to be working on a replacement.
MR. McCLELLAN: And I just indicated to you that we did go through a thorough vetting process, as we do with all nominees.
Q You said it would be weeks. Can you be more specific?
MR. McCLELLAN: I did indicate that. No, I'm not going to, because I want to be respectful of individuals involved in the process. I want to be respectful of the process. And I don't think from this podium it's helpful to get into all the specifics of that vetting process. But I can tell you broadly that we go through a pretty detailed questioning period with nominees; we do a lot of independent research and we look through all the public records, as well.
Q When did it begin? Can you give just a rough date, what month you began looking?
MR. McCLELLAN: As I indicated, I will leave it where I did, that it was weeks, not days. And I'll leave it there. But Secretary Ridge did not submit his letter of resignation until more recently, and the offer was not made to Commissioner Kerik until just recently.
Q Rudy Giuliani said this morning that he thought Bernie Kerik's problem was actually survivable politically, that he could have won confirmation if he had gone -- chosen to go that route. Does the White House agree with that assessment? And did the President do anything to dissuade him?
MR. McCLELLAN: I don't know -- I don't know that it's relevant at this point. Commissioner Kerik came to a decision, and he withdrew his name from consideration. But Mayor Giuliani over the weekend -- or I think it was over the weekend -- talked about the problems of managing this issue going forward from his perspective and Commissioner Kerik's perspective.
Q Did the White House do anything to try to dissuade Kerik from withdrawing when he --
MR. McCLELLAN: As I indicated last Friday, we respect -- the President respects his decision and wishes him well. It was a decision that he came to, and we respected that -- we respect that decision.
Q How will it affect the President's relationship with Mayor Giuliani? Is there any disappointment there?
MR. McCLELLAN: It doesn't. The President views Mayor Giuliani as a very good friend. They had a very good conversation last night here at a holiday dinner that was held at the White House. The Mayor sat at the President's table. The Mayor and his wife, Judith, rode in the limousine with the President and Mrs. Bush back from the "Christmas in Washington " event. And so the President has a great relationship with Mayor Giuliani. I know Mayor Giuliani has expressed his apologies, but I don't think the President viewed that one was necessary.
Q Scott, aside from the nanny issue, there have been other reports -- one in particular from The New York Times -- that says that Kerik had ties with a New Jersey construction company that New York officials believed had ties with organized crime. Does the President still feel that Kerik is a man of character?
MR. McCLELLAN: The President feels very strongly that Commissioner Kerik is someone who has a solid record of achievement. And the President's views have not changed when it comes to Commissioner Kerik and what he said at the announcement of his nomination. So that's the way I would describe it.
But now it is time to move forward and put in place a new nominee to be Secretary of Homeland Security. That's where our focus is. I appreciate your all's question looking back at some of these issues, but the decision was made by Commissioner Kerik and we respect his decision.
Q Does the White House believe the charges are baseless?
MR. McCLELLAN: Which charges are you referring to? I've seen speculation in the media. Like I said, I don't think it serves anyone to get into the speculation from this podium. We're moving forward now.
Q Scott, do you have a reaction to the poisoning of Ukraine 's opposition leader? And does that change at all what you think should happen in Ukraine over the next month or so?
MR. McCLELLAN: It's terrible news to hear. It's certainly disturbing reports. And I know the Ukraine government is investigating this matter fully, as they should.
Q On Ukraine , Scott. The Prime Minister today specifically accused the United States of intervening in the election, funding the opposition. What's your response to those charges?
MR. McCLELLAN: We addressed this issue last week. As I indicated, and as the President has indicated previously, the United States strongly supports a democratic process that reflects the will of the people of Ukraine . That's what our view is. We do not and have not supported any particular candidate in Ukraine 's presidential election. We do support free and fair elections around the world, and we do provide financial assistance to international organizations to help make sure there are free and fair elections. And we have provided assistance to organizations supporting such a process in Ukraine , and that includes NGOs, as well as other international organizations -- but that's to assist in voter education and political party training. And it is also assistance which is made available to all political parties in Ukraine .
Q Are you satisfied that there wasn't any crossover from the NGO money into a specific and outright campaign --
MR. McCLELLAN: Our assistance is to support free and fair elections that reflect the will of the people -- and that's what we do all over the world.
Q Would the President consider appointing a Democrat to the Homeland Security position ?
MR. McCLELLAN: I would not try to speculate about any person that the President may or may not appoint to Homeland Security. I don't get into speculation about personnel matters. When the President is ready to announce a decision, he will do so at that time, and then we can talk about that nominee. But he will appoint the person who he believes is the best person for the job.
Q It was a particularly deadly weekend in Iraq also. Are you concerned that the escalation of violence over there is such that it could derail elections at this point?
MR. McCLELLAN: The elections continue -- well, the Iraqi people continue to move forward on holding elections on a timetable that was set up by the Independent Iraqi Election Commission. We support that timetable and we are doing what we can to assist and move forward to meet that timetable.
The President indicated again last week at Camp Pendleton that as we move forward on elections, the Saddam loyalists and terrorists will become more desperate. We will continue to see violence as we move forward to building a free and peaceful Iraq for the Iraqi people. And that's what the President has said before. These are Saddam loyalists and terrorists who seek to derail the transition to a democratic, peaceful and free future for the Iraqi people. But they will be defeated, and they are being defeated.
Q To follow up on Iraq , two questions. One, it's one year now when Saddam Hussein was arrested, and Iraq has seen the life (inaudible). How do the President put now, after one year of Saddam Hussein is in jail, and now I understand he's on hunger strike and he's asking that freedom --
MR. McCLELLAN: I'm not sure that's accurate about Saddam Hussein. But Saddam Hussein committed grave atrocities against the Iraqi people. He is now going to face Iraqi justice. The Iraqi people will try Saddam Hussein through their court system and he will be held accountable for the atrocities he committed.
Q One on Afghanistan . President Karzai, of course, said this week, quite a big day for the people of Afghanistan , over (inaudible) freedom from the Taliban or al Qaeda brutal rule. He said that we will get Osama bin Laden. What prompted him at this time --
MR. McCLELLAN: I'm sorry, who said that?
Q President Karzai. He said that we are -- we have two problems here, one that we have al Qaedas are still there, and also that narcotics or heroin problem is funding the al Qaedas, and we will get Osama bin Laden at any cost. So what prompted him --
MR. McCLELLAN: Well, we've said that before. He will be brought to justice. I think we've made it very clear that we are continuing to pursue al Qaeda leaders who are responsible for the attacks on innocent Americans who lost their lives on September 11th, 2001 . We are making great progress in dismantling the al Qaeda network. There is more to do. The war on terrorism continues, and we will continue to aggressively go after those who seek to do harm to America and our friends and allies.
And the war on terrorism is the President's top priority, and we are going to stay on the offensive because that's the best way to win it. But we're also going to continue to advance freedom in the broader Middle East region, because that is the way you ultimately defeat the ideology of hatred that leads to people hijacking planes and flying them into buildings and killing innocent civilians. And that's what we will continue to do.
Q On the economic conference this week, you said that you're generally going to have people who are supportive of your policies. And I'm wondering what you would say to those critics who might say that there's --
MR. McCLELLAN: I don't know that --
Q -- it lacks usefulness to have --
MR. McCLELLAN: I don't know that's the exact words I used, but let me -- if I wasn't clear, let me be clear now. This economic conference is an opportunity to discuss the steps we need to continue to take to make sure our economy grows and creates jobs, as it is doing now. We have taken a number of steps through the President's policies to get our economy out of recession and growing strongly. We've had 2.4 million new jobs created over the last 15 months, but there is more to do, because we live in a very changing economy. And so we'll be talking about a number of these issues at the economic conference this Wednesday and Thursday.
I think that the audience includes a fairly diverse group of people from business leaders to policy experts to academics to small business people, and educators, as well. And for the most part, I think speakers will share the President's commitment to addressing the issues that we have talked about, and many certainly will share his general philosophy, based on a pro-growth, pro-jobs approach to getting our economy growing. But some are going to have different ideas about how we should approach aspects of the various issues that will be discussed at this forum.
Q Social Security and tax reform are two of the most complex domestic policy initiatives you could do. And what you say to the people who say, look, you've got to have a more diverse set of --
MR. McCLELLAN: I think there will be different ideas expressed within the conference about how we move forward on these different issues. But I think, generally speaking, you'll have people that share his philosophy. But they're going to have different ideas about how to move forward on some of these issues. And we look forward to talking about these high priorities at this conference on Wednesday and Thursday.
Q Scott, page one of this morning's Washington Times quotes the leader of the Draft Hillary for President organization as saying, "Bush has done everything he can to leave the doors wide open for illegal immigration . Hillary is the only one taking a position on immigration." And in Hillary's own words, "I do not think we have protected our borders." And my first question: What is the President's response to this rather serious charge?
MR. McCLELLAN: Well, let me just talk about our record and what we're pursuing when it comes to enforcing our borders and strengthening our immigration laws. We have made significant progress to strengthen our immigration laws and improve border security. There is important legislation that was just passed, and the President looks forward to signing it this Friday. It takes a number of steps to build upon that record we have pursued.
We are a society of immigrants, and the President believes we should be a welcoming society. But we also need to make sure the people who are coming into this country are coming here for the right reasons, and that they're coming here legally, through the immigration process we have in place. And he believes we need to continue to build upon the steps we've already taken.
Q Syndicated columnist Phyllis Schafly reports that --
MR. McCLELLAN: Let's get straight to the question, because I see some other hands back up that I want to get to.
Q -- 4,000 illegal aliens cross the border into Arizona every day. There are reports that 800,000 Californians have left the state, which has to spend $10 billion a year on schooling, health and incarceration of illegal aliens. And my question: Why doesn't the President seal our borders with troops and electronic equipment now, instead of waiting?
MR. McCLELLAN: There are a lot of innovative approaches that states have taken to address some of these issues. I know, speaking from the Texas perspective, that the President worked on these issues when he was governor. And there were some innovative ways to try to address some of these issues. But we're also working closely with our neighbors to the south, and working to expand trade opportunities so that we can improve the quality of life for those who are simply coming to the United States seeking a better way of life. And so they'll be less inclined to want to come to the United States , or they'll be more inclined to return home to support their families. A lot of these people are coming here simply to support their families.
Q They're claiming that Texas --
MR. McCLELLAN: You've had your questions.
Q -- and Arizona and New Mexico and California --
MR. McCLELLAN: This isn't a debate. This is a briefing.
Q -- are all -- all belong to Mexico . What do you say to that?
MR. McCLELLAN: Paula, go ahead. I say, Paula, go ahead.
Q The economic conference -- I noticed that Social Security is being examined in the context of financial challenges. So does that mean that in addition to looking at the actual individual savings account approach, that that particular session is also going to examine how to pay for this, or that structure is going to be used whether it's on-budget or off-budget to address this issue?
MR. McCLELLAN: I would not look at it that way, Paula. I think the President -- you've heard from him directly, recently saying that we all need to agree that we have a problem and what that problem is, and then we need to work in a bipartisan way to come up with a solution. I don't want to prejudge what participants are going to say at this conference. But Social Security is one of the highest priorities that we have before us. It is a real and growing problem that needs to be addressed. And the President is committed to addressing this problem now so that we don't pass it on to future generations and let it continue to get worse. But the President is continuing -- and this is part of -- this economic conference is obviously part of transitioning to a second term, as well, where we're talking about some of these high priorities on the agenda for the American people and how we can work together, moving forward, to accomplish great things. And so that's what we're talking about here.
Q But it was also listed as part of entitlement reform. So does that mean that Medicare reform and Medicare solvency will also be on the floor?
MR. McCLELLAN: Well, at this economic conference -- and again, we'll get you more details as we get closer, over the next couple of days, to that conference. You'll be there to cover it; you'll see the issues that come up. But addressing these unfunded liabilities is a top priority for this President. And Social Security reform was at the top of his agenda during this last election and over the last few years.
He appointed a commission, bipartisan commission that was led by Senator Moynihan, and looked at a number of these issues. They came up with some innovative ideas for solving the problem. The President said that would guide some of his thinking going forward. He laid out some very clear principles upon which he is moving forward to strengthen Social Security, and we look forward to working with members of Congress to get it done.
Q Last week the founders of MoveOn.org sent an email to their supporters about the Democratic Party, saying, "We bought it, we own it, and we're going to take it back." While their claim to ownership of the party is dubious, it underscores a fact that that organization and other 527s are not independent from campaigns and political parties, as required by law. The President spoke about this issue during the campaign. What priorities are you going to place on fixing McCain-Feingold in the next four years?
MR. McCLELLAN: You're talking about these 527 groups, I assume, when you're referring to that? I'm sure you're not asking me to try to give ideas to the Democratic Party about how they should move forward, but --
Q No, no, I'm suggesting since the 527s exerted influence on the election, in contradiction to the intention of McCain-Feingold, the President spoke on that issue, as did Democrats --
MR. McCLELLAN: Right. Right.
Q What is the President going to propose --
MR. McCLELLAN: And he said he was committed to working through the courts to try to address this issue, and working closely with Senator McCain on these matters. You're talking about unaccountable soft money that is being funneled to these groups, and the President believes it's something that we had addressed during the campaign finance reforms that were passed. He remains committed to addressing it. He said if we couldn't resolve it through the courts, that he would work with Senator McCain and look at legislative ways we could address the issue. It was a loophole in the campaign finance laws and the President believes it needs to be stopped.
Q Former FEMA Director Joe Allbaugh got very high marks for running that department during his tenure. Would he consider, and has it been talked with him as a former member of the Iron Triangle, to come back and run Homeland Security, given his expertise and his close relationship with the President?
MR. McCLELLAN: I'm not going to speculate on any particular individuals. Joe Allbaugh is a friend of the President's and someone who did do a great job at FEMA, but I'm not going to speculate about any individuals on any Cabinet nominations.
END 1:18 P.M. EST