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Home > News & Policies > Press Secretary Briefings

For Immediate Release
Office of the Press Secretary
December 31, 2007

Press Gaggle by Scott Stanzel
Crawford Middle School
Crawford, Texas

11:15 A.M. CST

MR. STANZEL: Happy New Year's Eve, everyone. I have a few announcements before I take your questions. Hopefully you saw the statement by the President on New Year's, and just to give you a sense of his plans this evening, he will spend some time with friends on the ranch, having dinner on the ranch. They'll be having a Mexican-themed dinner. I'm sorry for the delay in getting started here, but I wanted to wait for an announcement out of Mississippi.

This morning, just a few moments ago, Mississippi Governor Haley Barbour announced the choice to fill the Senate seat being vacated by Senator Trent Lott. And President Bush spoke this morning with the person who was selected, and that was Representative Roger Wicker. The President called him at about 8:15 a.m. this morning to congratulate him on his new role. And the following is a statement by the President:

"Today Mississippi Governor Haley Barbour announced the appointment of Representative Roger Wicker to serve as United States Senator for the state of Mississippi, succeeding Senator Trent Lott. I welcome Representative Wicker's appointment and commend Governor Barbour for the selection. Representative Wicker's leadership has earned the respect of his constituents and his colleagues in the House of Representatives. He is an advocate for our men and women in uniform and a champion of modernizing our health care system. And he shares Senator Lott's commitment to promote the interests of the people of Mississippi. I look forward to working with Roger in his new role representing Mississippi in the United States Senate."

That is a statement that will be released here shortly from the President.

Also this morning the President spoke with Colombian President Alvaro Uribe. They spoke this morning to exchange New Year's best wishes. President Uribe also updated the President on the situation involving the possible release of three Colombian nationals held by the FARC, noting that various issues are still being worked out. The two leaders reaffirmed the strong relationship between the United States and Colombia. And the President reiterated his strong support for gaining the approval of the Free Trade Agreement between our two countries.

And also this morning you should have the statement about the President signing this morning -- singing into law S. 2271, which is the Sudan Accountability and Divestment Act of 2007. So you should have that statement as well.

And with that, I will go to your questions.

Q Scott, on North Korea -- North Korea has missed the deadline for the disablement of the reactor and the declaration on the programs. What's the President's reaction to this?

MR. STANZEL: Well, you saw the statement last night from the administration. Tom Casey, from the State Department, did issue a statement. You've also seen statements from the Japanese and the South Koreans. It has been clear that the North Koreans would not provide a declaration by the deadline, and a full and complete declaration we believe is critical in order to move to the next phase.

So it is our view that that process should move forward. There is an opportunity to do that. Good progress has been made at Yongbyon. The United States has been working with North Korea in terms of the removal of the fuel rods and making sure that that's done safely and securely. But there does have to be a complete and full declaration, and this cannot be a situation where the North Koreans pretend to give a complete declaration. So we want that process to move forward and we will be pressing and working with all of the parties in the six-party talks to make sure that happens. Secretary of State Rice, Deputy Secretary Negroponte, Ambassador Chris Hill all have open lines of communication with members of the six-party talks and we hope and expect that that process will move forward.

Q Do you envision the United States pushing for sanctions or any sort of action like that?

MR. STANZEL: Well, those conversations about moving the process forward are ongoing. I think we think it's possible for the North Koreans to provide a full and complete declaration, and we hope that they will do that as soon as possible. I'm not going to speculate beyond that about other actions that could occur.

Q Are you surprised that North Korea didn't meet the deadline?

MR. STANZEL: I think that we had all hoped that North Korea would meet the December 31st deadline. We think that there is an opportunity to move forward. You saw the statement last night from the State Department that it is unfortunate that they didn't meet the deadline, but we'll be working with all the parties to make sure that this process moves forward.

Q Do you believe they are committed to the deadline?

MR. STANZEL: Well, they did not meet --

Q Or the talks, rather?

MR. STANZEL: I think there is reason to believe that all of the members of the six-party talks think that this process should move forward, and we expect a full and complete declaration. So we hope that it will move forward.

Q North Korea -- have you gotten any indications that they will be filing a report or providing this information in the near term?

MR. STANZEL: It was our understanding, based on recent conversations, that obviously they were not going to make the December 31st deadline. You know, the United States actually slowed down part of the disablement process, and that is not something that we blamed the North Koreans for, but we wanted that to be done in a safe and secure manner. So we are not blaming the North Koreans for the slowdown in that disablement process.

However, we believe that the full and complete declaration is key to this process and we think there is an opportunity for them to do that.

Q Do you expect it soon?

MR. STANZEL: I'm not going to put a timeline on it, but we'll be working with all the parties in pressing North Korea to make sure that that does happen.

Q I hear you saying that there are no consequences, though, for missing a deadline.

MR. STANZEL: Well, as you know, this is an action-for-action process, where at each point if North Korea meets certain deadlines they can move forward with the process and there is aid that can be provided. I would refer you to the State Department about all of the specifics on that, but it is an action-for-action process, and in order to have action on one side, we have to have action on the other side as well.

Q Scott, on Pakistan, given the questions that are now emerging about the circumstances of Benazir Bhutto's death, is the United States going to try to become involved in the investigation in any way?

MR. STANZEL: Well, that would be an issue for the people of Pakistan to work out. Obviously they're a sovereign government and they will have to be conducting that investigation. We have offered to provide any guidance or assistance that is requested. At this time, as far as I'm aware, none has been requested of the United States, but that is a matter for the Pakistani government to move forward on; it's early in the investigation.

Q And given these reports are you, or is the administration losing confidence that the government really can carry out a thorough investigation?

MR. STANZEL: I think it's in the interests of the people of Pakistan that there be a full investigation. I think it's in the interests of long-term prospects for democracy in Pakistan that that be the case. And we stand ready to help Pakistan, should they request our assistance with that.

Q But my question was do you and the administration -- does the President feel confident that they will conduct a thorough investigation.

MR. STANZEL: I think that's what everyone expects and I think that's in everyone's interests.

Q Anything on the possible delay for six weeks in the Pakistani elections?

MR. STANZEL: In terms of the elections, that is also -- free and fair elections, as we've noted before, are an important part of the democratic society, and it's up to the political parties in Afghanistan to come to an agreement on that. We do believe that Pakistan should set a specific date so the process can be open and predictable. But in terms of the precise timing of that, that's up to the people in Pakistan.

Q On Sudan, the President's statement makes clear that there are provisions of the law that he disagrees with. Can you give us some details, shed some light on what is bothersome about it?

MR. STANZEL: We do share, of course, concerns with Congress about the situation in Sudan. We do share concerns about the violence that has been perpetrated by the government and by rebel groups there. And while the legislation has an admirable objective of seeking to improve conditions and end suffering in Sudan, certain provisions of the bill do raise constitutional concerns. Under the Constitution, the federal government is entrusted with a full and exclusive responsibility for the conduct of foreign affairs.

So to the extent that any actions taken pursuant to the act interfere with the federal government's foreign policy aims, that action would be unconstitutional. So as the signing statement makes clear, the administration will take appropriate measures to ensure that the United States, through the federal government, speaks with one voice in foreign policy matters.

Q Could you give us an example?

MR. STANZEL: I can take that question and probably provide you more guidance from some of our attorneys, who have obviously very closely examined this law. But those are our general concerns.

Q Scott, why did North Korea miss the deadline?

MR. STANZEL: I'm sorry?

Q Why did North Korea miss the deadline?

MR. STANZEL: Because they didn't turn in a full and complete declaration prior to --

Q Okay, I understand -- that's a very literal answer to the question. (Laughter.)

MR. STANZEL: And that's the one I have for you. I can't speak to their motivations.

Q So they didn't communicate with the United States to say, hey, this is going to take a little longer than we thought, here's this issue, here's that problem? You alluded to the slowdown in the disablement. So the United States has no idea why, specifically, what --

MR. STANZEL: I'm not going to say that, Olivier, other than I suggest you may touch base with State to see if they want to provide a greater readout of their conversations throughout this process. But it has been clear in recent days that they were not going to meet the deadline. So I'd just refer you to the State Department for those conversations, to see if you can get a readout from them.

Q Any reaction to the violence in Kenya following elections there?

MR. STANZEL: The State Department, if they have not issued it already, should momentarily be issuing a statement about the situation in Kenya. And we are concerned about the outbreaks of violence across Kenya in reaction to the announcement of the voting results there this weekend. We've urged all parties to call on their supporters to remain calm and respect the rule of law. And we do, obviously, respect the right of Kenyans to voice their concerns about the elections publicly and we would hope that all challenges to the election can be channeled through appropriate legal and constitutional mechanisms. And as I noted, the State Department should have a statement that they're releasing here very shortly.

Q Scott, going back to Sudan, can you discuss just what the exact impact is of this legislation --

MR. STANZEL: I would refer you to the --

Q -- the parts that you disagree with?

MR. STANZEL: I would refer you to the signing statement, the answer I gave to --

Q That didn't tell us --

MR. STANZEL: -- and tell you that I can follow up on specifics of the law.

Q One other follow-up question. It required an identification of companies doing over, I believe it was $20 million worth of business. Is that something that you have, or is that Treasury compiling such a list or --

MR. STANZEL: Yes, that is -- I'm not deeply familiar with all the ins and outs of the law, Roger, so I'd have to take that question.

Q Scott, I'm wondering with the new year coming whether the President has had a message to staff, basically, that it's time to refocus for the home stretch?

MR. STANZEL: Well, you've heard the President say many times, and he's fond of saying that he looks forward to the sprint to the finish. I think we have tremendous opportunities in the new year and the President believes that we can work together to get many things done for the American people.

You may have noted his New Year's resolution in the radio address on Saturday is to work with Congress to make sure that we keep the economy moving, we keep taxes low, we keep close watch on the peoples' money and don't balloon the budget.

But I think the President has said very publicly and privately that he expects all of us on staff to sprint to the finish with him. And rest assured it's an effort to keep up with him because he has tremendous energy for the job. And we'll be working very hard not only on domestic issues, but obviously, as you well know, he has many efforts ongoing on the foreign policy front -- whether it's spreading democracy and liberty throughout the world, working with partners in the Middle East to bring peace and stability to that region; also we'll be traveling to Africa, as you know. And all of those are issues that the President looks forward to working on in the next year.

Q Has he laid out domestic legislative priorities he's going to try to push through?

MR. STANZEL: Well, that really falls to the State of the Union address. That's probably the time in which the President can sort of lay out his specific policy agenda for the upcoming year.

But you've heard the President talk about many of the things that we've worked on over the past year, and that is making sure that we don't see tax increases that would harm our economy during this time when we have headwinds as a result of the housing market; making sure that we keep spending in check so we can stay on path to a balanced budget; working with Congress to make sure that we continue to expand energy security.

Also the President would like to see a reauthorization of the No Child Left Behind Act, which is an education bill that has shown real results for the American people and is demonstrated through testing of students and student achievement has gone up significantly since that law was enacted.

So those are some of the basic priorities that the President has talked about, and I would urge you to, as you will, tune into his State of the Union address for any new initiatives in the coming year.


Q Scott, just one more on Pakistan. Has anyone in the administration, from the President on down, reached out to the new leaders of the PPP, Mr. Zardari and his son?

MR. STANZEL: I can't speak to the ambassador -- the ambassador has spoken with all of the parties throughout this process since the tragedy of the assassination of Benazir Bhutto. The President obviously spoke with President Musharraf on Thursday. The conversations with Secretary Rice and others at the State Department level have been ongoing. But I would refer you to the State Department to see if they've had direct conversations with the new PPP leaders.

Q But the President has not?

MR. STANZEL: The President has not; that's correct.

Q Scott, have you verified whether the veto this week of the defense authorization bill is, in fact, a pocket veto -- and you're sticking with that?

MR. STANZEL: Absolutely.

Q And it becomes official when? Tonight at midnight?

MR. STANZEL: Correct.

Q And even though some congressional leaders say Congress was not in adjournment?

MR. STANZEL: Well, the House of Representatives Article -- is it Article 1, Section 7 of the Constitution, refers to the fact that the legislation has to be returned to the House in which it was originated. The House of Representatives has adjourned; they did adjourn on December 19th. And per the Constitution, will be back gaveling in on January 3rd.

A pocket veto, as you know, is essentially putting it in your pocket and not taking any action whatsoever. And when Congress -- the House is out of session, in this case it's our view that that bill then would not become law.

In addition to that, that's why we took the additional step of actually returning the legislation on Friday to the House with a message of disapproval. So it's our view that we took the extra step -- what they call a protective return -- to make sure that Congress, when it returns in January, can move forward quickly with a fix to that legislation so the pay raises, the .5 percent can go into effect retroactively and we can make sure that Iraq has an opportunity to continue the process of rebuilding.

Q So you think you're covered either way, right?

MR. STANZEL: Correct. And that's a process and a procedure that has been used a number of times over the past couple decades.

Q Scott, do you expect any more bill signings, either today or perhaps tomorrow on the way back to D.C.?

MR. STANZEL: It's possible. There are a number of bills coming up for action in the next week or so, it just depends on when those are ready for the President's action. So we'll certainly keep you posted.

Q Scott, are there any announcements concerning pardons coming up today?

MR. STANZEL: As you know, we don't ever speculate about pardons. We did have some announcements several weeks ago, so I don't have anything further for you on that.

Q Why is he going back tomorrow, on New Year's Day? Is there a reason? Does he have some engagements tomorrow back at the White House?

MR. STANZEL: I am not aware of the President's schedule tomorrow night after we arrive, so I'm not aware of the specific reasoning -- other than I'm sure you all want to get back to your families.

Q Is that the reason, to accommodate us?

MR. STANZEL: Maybe so.

Q I doubt it. (Laughter.)

MR. STANZEL: The festive New Year's spirit, the comity between the press and the administration. (Laughter.)

Q Which "comity"?

MR. STANZEL: The one with the "t." (Laughter.)

Q It's a new resolution. (Laughter.)

MR. STANZEL: Any other questions? Amy.

Q Scott, back to the Sudan legislation. Does the sort of qualifications that are included in the President's statement -- does that indicate that the administration will seek to ignore or sort of try and get around certain aspects of the bill that it wasn't fond of?

MR. STANZEL: Well, yes, to the extent that actions taken interfere with the federal government's foreign policy aims, it would be our view that those would be unconstitutional. So that is a concern that we do have with the legislation.

Actually, the State Department and the Justice Department, in letters in October, did express those concerns. So we've made Congress aware of our concerns about the legislation and the signing statement is to make clear that where we view actions taken to be unconstitutional we will take action.

Q So why did he sign it then?

MR. STANZEL: Well, we certainly, as I noted, we support the overall goal and we support efforts to address the problem in Darfur, in Sudan. We have sanctions in place. We've been working with international partners on these issues. And we have supported the deployment of peacekeepers there.

And so addressing the situation in Sudan is an important priority. It's just specifics of that legislation drew concern and that's why it was noted in the signing statement.


Q Scott, does the President agree with President Abbas that Middle East peace talks can't go forward unless Israel halts all settlement activity in the occupied territories?

MR. STANZEL: You know, I know that President Abbas and Prime Minister Olmert met last week to talk about those issues. We have urged the parties to move forward with those discussions. The President will be heading to the region in just about a week. There are difficult choices that both sides are going to have to make in this process, and we have urged them to move forward with that. But I haven't asked the President more specifics than --

Q Is the President doing anything in particular, anything special to prepare for the Middle East trip?

MR. STANZEL: I can get back to you on that. We're still a week away. For your planning purposes, I think on Thursday of this week we'll have a briefing for you all with Steve Hadley to sort of lay out our goals for the trip and the parameters for the trip. So that will be coming up on Thursday.

Q Scott, should we expect the President will be in bed before midnight?

MR. STANZEL: I think that's a safe bet, Mark, yes.

Q Thank you.

END 11:38 A.M. CST