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For Immediate Release
Office of the Press Secretary
March 17, 2005
Press Briefing by Scott McClellan
The James S. Brady Press Briefing Room
1:22 P.M. EST
MR. McCLELLAN: Good afternoon, and Happy St. Patrick's Day to everyone. America has greatly benefited from the contributions of the Irish. And the President was pleased to welcome Prime Minister Ahern back to the White House today, and receive the bowl of shamrocks from the Taoiseach. Our two nations enjoy a strong friendship that unites us.
The two leaders, following the Shamrock Ceremony, had the opportunity to sit down and visit. They had a very good discussion. The President and Prime Minister discussed a range of issues. They talked about the hopeful period it is in the Middle East and the advance of freedom and democracy in the region. They talked about Iraq and how advance -- Iraq is moving forward on the path to democracy, with the successful elections and the first meeting of the Transitional National Assembly.
And they talked about the Middle East peace process and the importance of supporting the aspirations of the Palestinian people, as they move forward to put the institutions in place for a democratic state to emerge. They also discussed Lebanon and Iran, and the President's recent trip to Europe, as well as other transatlantic issues.
And they discussed their shared commitment to peace in Northern Ireland. Both leaders agreed that the criminality and violence must end. The meeting was about 50 minutes long. And following that, the two leaders met with a number of civil society leaders who are committed to achieving a peaceful solution in Northern Ireland. This was over in the Diplomatic Reception Room, in the Residence. The President said that he strongly supports their efforts, and wants to see them succeed in their efforts to achieve peace. The President let them know that he believed they can show others around the world what is possible.
The President, during that time, was also honored to meet the sisters and fianc of Robert McCartney. The President thanked the McCartney family for their courage. He knows that their courage comes from their love. And the President let them know that he shared in their grieving over the loss of their loved one. And he expressed to them that justice will prevail. The President also expressed his belief that everyday citizens can accomplish extraordinary things. The McCartney sisters have united people around the cause of peace and the rule of law. And the President let them know that the United States would do what we can to help. We stand ready to assist those who are committed to achieving a comprehensive peace in Northern Ireland.
And with that, I will be glad to take your questions.
Q The President -- the McCartney sisters said the President said he would do whatever he could to bring Robert McCartney's killers to justice. What, if anything, can the United States do to help on that front?
MR. McCLELLAN: He was simply letting them know that we will do whatever we can to assist. And I'm not sure that -- what has been asked of us at this point, but we stand ready to assist in helping the parties move forward on a comprehensive peace agreement. Today was a day to honor those civil society leaders who are committed to achieving a peaceful solution in Northern Ireland. That's why we invited them to the White House. And the President was honored that they came to the White House. When he began his conversation with the sisters, he said, welcome to the White House and God bless you. He talked about what brave souls they were, as you heard him say yesterday, and let them know that out of evil can come great good, and thanked them for their efforts.
Q You left Sinn Fein out of the events today. What is the relationship with Sinn Fein going to be going forward?
MR. McCLELLAN: Well, we want to see the parties, all parties, get back on the path to a comprehensive peace agreement. The violence and the criminal acts that continue remain an obstacle to a lasting and durable peace. We stand with Prime Minister Ahern and Prime Minister Blair in their efforts to bring about a comprehensive peace agreement.
Q Can I follow up on that, Scott?
MR. McCLELLAN: Sure.
Q Is the IRA one of those parties -- Mitchell Reiss, your Northern Ireland envoy, has said a couple times over the last week that it's time for the IRA to disband. Is there a place for the IRA in this? How can this process go forward? I gather the main impediment is over the --
MR. McCLELLAN: There is no place for the violence and the thuggery and the criminality. The President made that clear again today. And we do stand with the prime ministers who have expressed those sentiments regarding the IRA.
Q Substantively, though, what would you like to see happen to encourage the IRA and Sinn Fein to come back to the negotiating table to talk about the substantive issue, which I gather is over the conditions under which the IRA would disarm?
MR. McCLELLAN: Well, Prime Ministers Ahern and Blair have spoken to this issue. We're supporting their efforts to get back on the path to a comprehensive peace agreement. And that's where it stands. The sisters coming here sends the message that we are united with those who are working in the society to end the violence and bring about peace.
Q Two questions. Dr. Rice was in India -- the Indian society, and she was well received. My question is, that if she was -- can you confirm if she was carrying a letter of invitation from the President to invite the Prime Minister of India in the White House? He's expected to be here in July. And when President is going to India?
MR. McCLELLAN: Well, we don't have any announcement to make at this point, but we have a very good relationship with India. The President has a very good relationship with Prime Minister Singh. And we've continued to work to strengthen that relationship. And I'm sure the President would welcome him coming to the White House.
Q Just following up on my question at the gaggle about Rebiya Kadeer. Is this somebody you'd like to have to the White House? And also, can you explain the rationale behind not proposing a resolution criticizing China's human rights record at this year's Human Rights Commission in Geneva?
MR. McCLELLAN: A couple of things. First of all, she is on her way to the United States, after being released from prison in China. Her release has been a high priority for this administration and many others. We are pleased that she will now rejoin her family, and we look forward to her arrival in the United States. We continue to call on the Chinese government to release all others who are imprisoned unjustly for the peaceful expression of their political and religious beliefs. And so we look forward to her returning to the United States.
I'm sorry -- the second part?
Q Yes -- the United States has decided not to offer a resolution criticizing China's human rights record at this year's meeting of the U.N. Human Rights Commission in Geneva. Your concerns are all gone? What's the rationale behind that?
MR. McCLELLAN: No, actually, we continue to remain concerned about the human rights situation in China that was recently documented in the release of our human rights report by the Department of State. We do not have any intention of tabling a resolution at the Commission this year, due to some progress and commitments made by China in areas of concern to the United States and the international community. And this release is something we welcome, and there has been some other steps, but we remain concerned about the human rights situation in China.
Q Well, where have they made progress?
MR. McCLELLAN: It's actually -- we can spell that out for you and I'll be glad to provide that for you, but the release of a political prisoner is progress, and they've taken some other steps. But we do -- like I said, we do remain greatly concerned about the situation there. And the State Department can provide you some of that progress, specific progress.
Q I have another question on human rights and the rendition program that Terry asked the President about yesterday. The President said that the United States gets assurances from the countries where these prisoners are transferred back to that they won't be tortured. But does he really take those assurances seriously, in the light of the testimonial evidence and a wide array of reporting over the past couple of months that, indeed, there were torture -- or rather, terror suspects who were, indeed, tortured in our allied countries in the Middle East?
MR. McCLELLAN: Absolutely, in response to your question.
Q So those people are lying?
MR. McCLELLAN: The President has made it very clear that we do not condone torture. He's made it very clear to the government that we do not torture. And the President does not believe we should export torture. We remain a nation at war, in the aftermath of the September 11th attacks, and we do have an obligation to gather information from known terrorists that can help us to prevent and disrupt attacks, as well as to capture other terrorists. This war is an ongoing effort, but as we carry out those obligations to protect the American people, we must do so in a way that adheres to our laws and our values. And the President has made that very clear, repeatedly.
Q Is the President aware of some of this testimonial evidence of individuals who were apprehended, who told their stories publicly, about the sort of treatment they have received overseas?
MR. McCLELLAN: Yes -- you've seen the news coverage, I've seen the news coverage, as well --
Q Right. I mean, to sit around and say, well, yes, we don't export torture, I mean, you just close your eyes and there's nothing happening?
MR. McCLELLAN: No, David, never when it comes to torture.
Q Are these reports wrong, or does he not believe that there's torture going on in these countries where these prisoners are being rendered back to?
MR. McCLELLAN: When people are rendered to another country, we seek assurances that they won't be tortured. When we return known terrorists to their countries of origin, or we render people to countries, we want to have assurances that they're not going to be tortured, because that's a value that we hold very dearly. And let's understand, though, that we are talking about -- I mean, Terry brought up earlier today, Khalid Shaykh Mohammad. Khalid Shaykh Mohammad is a known terrorist who is responsible for overseeing the attacks of September 11th that led to the killing of 3,000 innocent civilians in America. But I make very clear, again, what our view is.
Q I know. I know what the view is. I know what Khalid Shaykh Mohammad evidently did. That still doesn't answer the question. Does the President believe that there is no torture going on in any of these countries that are receiving prisoners that are part of this rendition program? Is he sure of that?
MR. McCLELLAN: David, we comply with our treaties and with our -- with our --
Q That's a non-answer, and you know it.
MR. McCLELLAN: David, will you let me finish my response?
Q Yes. When you get your assurances, does that mean he believes it's not happening?
MR. McCLELLAN: We believe in adhering to our laws and our treaty obligations. That's the way the President has always acted. And he's made it clear to everybody throughout government that we do not torture. And that applies across the board. And as we carry out the war on terrorism, and seek to prevent attacks from happening, we must adhere to those laws, and we must adhere to those treaty obligations and we must adhere to -- we must adhere to our values.
Now, these are -- some of these issues you bring up are matters involving national intelligence or matters involving classified information that is related to the ongoing war on terrorism. And it's relating to known terrorists. And, obviously, I'm not going to get into discussing specific cases, for that reason. But we do take very seriously what our obligations are, and we have an obligation not to render people to countries if we believe they're going to be tortured.
Q One on this, one on another subject. Would you acknowledge then, as David just pointed out, there are people who have been in U.S. custody, who were transferred to other countries, who have now come out and said, I was tortured. Did that happen?
MR. McCLELLAN: Director Goss was testifying earlier today; he addressed some of these issues. The Attorney General, Judge Gonzales, has addressed some of these issues. I would leave it exactly where they left it, Terry.
Q But does the White House admit or deny the allegations of these people who were in U.S. custody --
MR. McCLELLAN: Again, Terry, that matter -- those questions have been directed to Director Goss, they've been directed to Attorney General Gonzales during his testimony, and they've responded to it, and they've addressed it. And I will leave it where they left it.
Q All right. On another subject, the United States Congress is -- seems poised to pass a piece of federal legislation in the case of Terri Schaivo to try and save her life. What is the President's position on it?
MR. McCLELLAN: Well, the President has previously expressed his view on the case. The case raises complex issues. And the President believes our goal, as a nation, should be to build a culture of life. Those who live at the mercy of others deserve our special care and attention. And the President believes a society that is built on a culture of life ought to welcome, protect and value all individuals.
Q So the President would sign such a piece of legislation if it came to him?
MR. McCLELLAN: Well, the President stands on the side of defending life. In instances like this case, where there are serious questions and doubts raised, the President believes that our society and our laws and our courts ought to be on the side of presumption in favor of life. And we appreciate the efforts by members of Congress. The President's views will continue to be those that defend life.
Q So with the vote yesterday, you're halfway to opening up the ANWR, which means that if things keep going your way, in eight to 10 years we might start to see some of the first oil from the Wildlife Refuge coming to market. What can the President do in the next few months to get the price of oil and gasoline down?
MR. McCLELLAN: Well, John, the problem here is that Congress has failed to act on a comprehensive energy plan, because --
Q That's not the problem. The problem is that the price at the wellhead is $57, and the price at the pump will soon be $2.50. And even if they passed the energy bill three years ago, it wouldn't be doing anything about the price of oil.
MR. McCLELLAN: You can advocate your position, you're welcome to do that.
Q I'm just stating the facts.
MR. McCLELLAN: No, the facts are that we have run into this problem year after year because of a failure to act on a comprehensive energy plan. The President, four years ago, outlined a comprehensive energy strategy and called on Congress to pass it. It is a plan that will reduce our dependence on foreign sources of energy and make us more energy self-sufficient. That's what we need to do. We need a comprehensive solution, not patchwork crisis management.
And that's why the President remains very concerned about rising energy prices. This is something that occurs year after year. And it's the obligation of Congress to act when they see problems of this significance. And the President yesterday encouraged members of Congress to listen to the concerns of their constituents. We're concerned about the rising energy prices and their impact on families and their impact on small businesses. It is a drag on our growing economy. We have taken a lot of steps to get our economy growing again, and high energy prices are a drag on that growing economy. And the President believes now is the time to act and pass a comprehensive energy plan.
Now, ANWR, you bring that up, and that's an important part of our comprehensive strategy for reducing our dependence on foreign sources of energy. And the President applauds the Senate for acting on that and passing legislation that would allow for environmentally responsible drilling in a very small portion of ANWR.
Q But even if he had the opportunity to say, "yahoo" four years ago, we'd still be four years away from seeing the first oil flowing out of it, so the comprehensive energy plan would do nothing to ameliorate the prices that we're seeing at the pump right now. So what else can the President do?
MR. McCLELLAN: Do you have a suggestion on what you would like us to do? You seem to be very much the advocate that we need to do --
Q I'm just asking if you can do something.
MR. McCLELLAN: Do you have a suggestion? You said that -- you suggested that we could do something. Now, we can make sure that there's not price gauging going on --
Q If I were standing where you were, I'd probably have a whole lot of suggestions, but I'm not, I'm down here.
MR. McCLELLAN: We can make sure that price gouging is not going on. We can make sure that OPEC-producing nations and non-OPEC producing nations understand that it's important that we all act in a way that encourages continued economic growth. That means making sure that there are adequate and abundant and affordable supplies of energy, because that's important to a growing world economy and a growing economy here in the United States.
And the most important thing we can do, though, is continue to call on Congress to act and pass a comprehensive energy strategy, and not let a small number of individuals prevent that from happening.
Q One thing I'm confused about your answer, are you saying the reason why gas prices are so high is because Congress hasn't acted for the past four years?
MR. McCLELLAN: I'm saying that we are dependent on foreign sources of energy, and America needs to be more energy self-sufficient. The President outlined a comprehensive plan. It expands conservation, it increases energy efficiency, it diversifies our supply here at home, and it also addresses another important problem, our electricity grid. It calls for modernizing our electricity grid. We saw from the blackouts of a year, year-and-a-half ago, what occurred there. That's why now -- that's why we need to act on a comprehensive energy plan so we don't keep revisiting this issue year after year. This is an issue that continues to recur because we have not taken steps to reduce ourselves of our dependence on foreign sources of energy.
Q So does Congress's failure to act -- is that the reason for --
MR. McCLELLAN: There are many people in Congress that are committed to acting on a comprehensive energy plan, but there are some that are blocking those efforts from proceeding forward. And I think the American people should know what the facts are. We submitted a plan; we submitted it four years ago when the President first came into office. This was a high priority, because we've seen the problems that occur, and we've seen the problem that occurs year after year because of rising energy prices. That's why the President led, that's why the President put forward a proposal, and Congress needs to act on that proposal.
Go ahead, John.
Q You said two days ago, in response to my question, that the $5 billion in loans and loan guarantees from the Ex-Im Bank to Mainland China was only in the discussion stage, that it had not occurred yet. Yesterday morning at the session, the President said -- he expressed reservations about helping Russia with is nuclear powers, because of his concerns about it. Based on those concerns, wouldn't --
MR. McCLELLAN: I'm sorry, what are you referring to, what the President said?
Q Well, he talked about Russia yesterday morning, and not helping on their nuclear program.
MR. McCLELLAN: Yesterday morning. You're talking about the press conference?
Q At the press conference, yes.
MR. McCLELLAN: I think he talked about -- he was talking about Iran and making sure that we're working together to keep Iran from developing a nuclear weapon. But one important aspect of -- because our -- well, let me just correct that. One of our concerns is because of Iran's past activities of hiding their nuclear program, that they are working to develop a nuclear weapon under the guise of a civilian program. And Russia has actually taken an important step in saying that, we'll provide fuel for this plant, but they have a take-back provision so that that fuel comes back. The President believes we all need to make sure that Iran permanently ceases its enrichment and reprocessing activities, because that's the way for Iran to show confidence that they have no intention of developing a nuclear weapon. So I just want to be clear on that.
Q Okay, agreed on that. But based on that criterion that you used, shouldn't the United States hold back -- or the Ex-Im Bank, rather, hold bank on the loan guarantees to China, which has a history of helping Iran and Pakistan build their own nuclear reactors?
MR. McCLELLAN: The Export-Import Bank can probably talk to you about these issues. I think they've addresses some of these issues. I don't know all the specifics of this particular issue. I think you brought it up in the context of concerns about proliferation, and the Bank, itself, is not an agency that addresses the proliferation concerns. There are other departments and agencies that do look at the proliferation concerns. And before anything like that happens, they want to make sure that there is not a concern about proliferation. And so they can -- but they can talk to you about the preliminary plans they put forward in more detail. I just don't know all those specifics.
Sarah, go ahead.
Q Thank you. Scott, I have a question on a possible solution. Mexico's President, Vicente Fox, is demanding that the walls now along the U.S.-Mexican border be torn down, saying that they're discriminatory and against freedom. At his meeting with Fox next week, will the President agree to tear down the walls, or will he insist they be kept?
MR. McCLELLAN: Well, the focus of next week's meeting is on strengthening our security and expanding our prosperity in the hemisphere. It's a trilateral meeting with Canada and with President Fox. They're going to have lunch after the morning meetings, but the focus of this meeting is on our initiative to move forward on strengthening security and making sure that we are all doing what we can to protect our borders, while also allowing for the free flow of goods and services and easing the flow of people among our borders, and then, also making sure that we are taking -- well, on the prosperity side, I've talked about the free flow of goods and services. Prosperity and security go hand-in-hand. And all our nations have been working to take steps to make sure we have a common approach on security and a common approach on expanding prosperity.
Now, in terms of the issue you bring up, the larger issue here is really making sure that we have a safe, orderly, and humane migration system. And this is something the President has worked on for many years, going back to his days as governor. He's talked about it with President Fox at length, and he's also put forward some proposals for achieving those objectives.
We've taken a number of steps to strengthen our border security, and we've also put forward a proposal that shows our compassion and addresses an important economic need, and that is the temporary worker program that the President proposed, because we have, I think, some 8 million illegal immigrants who have been coming to this country seeking to work, and it's a problem. And the President believes the plan that he put forward addresses that problem, addresses an economic need, and we will make sure that people who are coming here illegally are treated in a more humane way, because they'll now become part of a temporary program and be here legally.
So that's the way the President is looking at addressing these issues, and it addresses the larger issue, so that we do accomplish that shared goal.
Q I have a --
MR. McCLELLAN: Let me keep going and I'll try to come back. Elaine, and then back here.
Q Scott, on Congressman Portman, you said earlier today that -- repeating what President Bush said, that he's a skilled negotiator, he's good at getting things done in a bipartisan way. Are you anticipating specific fights that you hope he can be especially valuable in as you move forward on the President's trade agenda? Are there specific issues, and what are the biggest challenges you perceive?
MR. McCLELLAN: Well, the trade agenda has been a great success of our first term under the leadership of Ambassador Zoellick as our United States Trade Representative. We have worked to open markets and level the playing field. That's important to creating jobs here at home and making sure that our economy is growing stronger. And we were able to achieve many bilateral trade agreements and move forward on regional agreements, and we've also got the Doha round moving again.
So the President believes very strongly in free and fair trade, and Congressman Portman is someone who shares that commitment. He is a skilled negotiator who has worked for a number of years in Congress to get things done on behalf of the American people. And he's going to make an outstanding Trade Representative. The President hopes Congress -- hopes the Senate will move forward quickly on this nomination.
Q Because, as you know, there are people who are quite nervous about the trade deficit, and the numbers out yesterday are quite alarming to some people. What is it that you hope Congressman Portman can do to --
MR. McCLELLAN: Well, the President -- first of all, the reason why -- part of the reason why we have a trade deficit is because our economy is growing faster than other economies around the world. And by opening markets and expanding trade and leveling the playing field, we will not only make sure that our economy here at home is strong, but it will also strengthen economies abroad, and that will start to address the issue.
But we need to continue to make sure that when we expand trade, that there is a level playing field. Because our workers can compete with anyone in the world when they are playing on a level playing field.
Q Scott, on renditions, has the United States ever rendered prisoners to countries other than their country of origin?
MR. McCLELLAN: Ken, I'm not going to get into talking about any specific matters, and that would be getting into talking about specific matters. But I think I addressed that question earlier when I said that we have an obligation not to render people to countries if we believe they're going to be tortured. All countries that are committed to winning the global war on terrorism have an obligation to work together to defeat the terrorists and to prevent attacks from happening. But Chairman -- I mean, Director Goss was testifying earlier today; you might want to look at some of the comments he made. And I'm just not going to get into specific intelligence matters.
Q The President said yesterday, specifically, when we returned prisoners to their country of origin, we do so with assurances they won't be tortured. Does that mean there's another category, when we send them to countries other than the country of origin, or that they only go to their countries of origin?
MR. McCLELLAN: I would just repeat what I said. We have an obligation, and we make sure that we get assurances that when people are rendered to other countries that they won't be tortured.
Q Whatever country, whether it's their country of origin or not.
MR. McCLELLAN: Ken, you might want to direct further questions to the intelligence community. Again, these are -- this is involving national intelligence, and this is involving matters related to the war on terrorism. And this involves classified information that I'm just not going to get into.
Go ahead, I'm sorry.
Q Going back to drilling in the Alaska National Wildlife Refuge, isn't it the case that in ten years or so, when we do get some oil going into barrels, that oil isn't going to be put in barrels and put up on the shelf for Americans; it will, in fact, go on the world market. So isn't it the case that even if we are slightly lowering our dependence on foreign oil, the understanding that this oil is for us is not correct.
MR. McCLELLAN: It will help reduce our dependence on foreign sources of energy, because the view of geologists is that there's ample supplies of oil available in ANWR. And what we're talking about is a very small footprint on the land there. And new technology helps us make sure that we can do this is an environmentally responsible way. So it is part of reducing our dependence on foreign sources of energy.
Q But the oil itself is not put aside for the U.S. It goes onto the world market like other oil.
MR. McCLELLAN: That will help us here at home reduce our dependence on foreign sources of energy by providing much more supply of energy here in America.
Q Do you think it would help the Bush energy plan, in terms of moving it forward, if now was the time to come forward and say who specifically was on that energy task force and lift any kind of shadow that still hangs over it?
MR. McCLELLAN: We've been through this issue a number of times.
Go ahead, Paula.
Q Yesterday, the President mentioned as another possible option on the table for Social Security the idea of progressive indexing. And he cited a particular economist who was also a former member of the President's Commission on Strengthening Social Security. One other aspect of his proposal, however, would be to only divert 2 percent of payroll contributions, rather than the 4 percent the President has proposed. Are you also open to the idea of a lesser amount going into the accounts?
MR. McCLELLAN: We welcome his ideas. They are constructive ideas for advancing a bipartisan solution. You heard again from the President yesterday that he believes it's important to welcome all ideas and put all ideas on the table. That's the way we can move forward together to achieve a bipartisan solution. And you heard the President say that in his State of the Union address. You've heard him say it repeatedly since that time, as well. It's important that we work together in a bipartisan way to come up with a permanent solution to fix Social Security, as well as make sure that our children and grandchildren can realize a greater rate of return on their own retirement savings. That's why personal accounts are so important, because they'll be able to own some of their own retirement savings, and it will help them realize a greater rate of return than they're currently going to realize under Social Security.
I'd appreciate it if you guys would hang on a second. Thanks.
Strengthening Social Security is a top priority for this President. He is pleased with the progress that's being made in the national dialogue that's going on. The American people recognize that there are serious problems facing Social Security. And I think the American people, when they see problems like that, expect us to work together in a bipartisan way to get something done. That's why the President welcomes all those who are offering constructive ways to advance a solution.
Q And that would include a smaller contribution to the investment?
MR. McCLELLAN: Well, you're asking us to get into ruling things in or out. The President believes we should welcome all constructive ideas. And the President's not going to negotiate with himself through the press. He's made that clear, too.
Go ahead, Jessica.
Q Scott, back to the Schiavo case for a minute. Any legislation the President would sign would represent federal intervention in an issue that's already been decided at the state level by state courts that even the U.S. Supreme Court had an opportunity to review and decided not to. So is the President concerned at all about the legal precedent he's setting by allowing this kind of federal intervention into this case?
MR. McCLELLAN: Well, there are efforts going on in Florida, there are efforts going on in Congress. I said we appreciate their efforts, and then I made clear what the President's view was. It's something that we've stated previously when it regards the case of Terri Schiavo.
Q So is he concerned that the federal government would be intervening --
MR. McCLELLAN: In terms of congressional efforts, I mean, those are -- there are efforts going on in both the House and the Senate, and we appreciate those efforts. That's what our view is. I'll leave it at that for now.
Q Scott, on the Schiavo case, has the President had a conversation with his brother, the Governor, about this case?
MR. McCLELLAN: I don't know of any update, in terms -- I mean, he talks to his brother fairly often, but I haven't heard of any update.
Q It's a good question, though, if you could check that.
Q But are they coordinating in any way?
MR. McCLELLAN: Well, remember, we previously said that we supported the efforts of Governor Bush. So that's already been out there.
Thank you all.
END 1:55 P.M. EST