The White House, President George W. Bush Click to print this document

For Immediate Release
February 26, 2008

Press Briefing by Dana Perino
James S. Brady Press Briefing Room

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12:55 P.M. EST

MS. PERINO: Hello, everybody. A couple of announcements. One, the statement on housing, just an update. As the housing market continues to transition, President Bush is helping responsible homeowners across America through a series of targeted actions. This past fall, you may remember, he announced the creation of FHASecure, which is a program giving HUD's Federal Housing Administration greater flexibility to help Americans by offering more home mortgage financing and also refinancing options for people who need it.

Today the President was pleased to learn that that program has reached a milestone of helping over 100,000 Americans who have turned to FHASecure to refinance their homes and avoid foreclosure since it was launched last fall. And HUD says they are on track to help 300,000 Americans by the end of this calendar year.

In addition, today at 1:45 p.m., President Bush will meet with a bipartisan group of 20 former Cabinet and sub-Cabinet officials, as well as former legislators who have focused their careers on trade and national security issues. The President will discuss the importance of free trade to our economy and our national security, and the need to pass free trade agreements with Colombia and Korea.

Trade liberalization is unquestionably good for America. It creates jobs and improves our standard of living. This isn't just our view, it's the overwhelming view of economists everywhere. The United States has only 5 percent of the world's population; this means that 95 percent of the potential customers for our business, and farmers and service providers, is outside the United States. So we have to continue to open markets for our products.

American exporters are succeeding in the global marketplace because of trade, and exports are at an historic high. It's important to remember that the U.S. is the world's largest exporter. It's not China, not India, not Germany, not Japan, nor any other country. That said, there is no question that certain industries, and even certain regions, are more affected by new competition from overseas. And that is why we have trade adjustment assistance programs, to help workers who lose their jobs because of trade. And the President wants to make sure that those programs continue and that they are effective.

The group the President is meeting with today understands the great benefits that trade brings to this country, and he will thank them for their work and ask them to do more to keep the U.S. economy open, dynamic and competitive.

And again, we're going to be focusing on the Colombia and Korea free trade agreements today.

Now to your questions.

Q There was some bad economic news today. Consumer confidence plunged, the home prices fell -- had their steepest decline in the 20 years that the Standard & Poor's has been keeping records, and wholesale inflation rose at its fastest pace in a quarter century. What's the White House reaction to this economic -- spate of economic news?

MS. PERINO: The President has been briefed on all these numbers. He gets a regular briefing; he's very interested in making sure that he is kept up to date. There is no doubt, as he has said, that we are in a softening of the economy, we're in a slowdown. What the President has worked to do with bipartisan members of Congress is to pass a short-term stimulus package of $157 billion, checks of which will be headed to taxpayers within the next couple of months; in addition to that, giving small business owners and other businesses tax incentives that they can put into -- that they can start using right now, so that they can get that into their operations and help us -- help the whole economy prevent how deep the cycle will be.

As you know, economies cycle. When the President took office, the economy was in a downturn. Then we had 52 consecutive months of job growth, starting in August of 2003, and now we're in a softening period. And the question is how soft is it going to be, and how steep is the downturn going to be. And the President believes that one of the ways to make sure that it's not as steep as it could be is to do the stimulus package, and to make sure that we have pro-growth policies, including making sure that Congress does not raise taxes on the American people.

Helen.

Q We're coming on to the fifth anniversary of our invasion of Iraq, and two years ago the President summed up the number of Iraqis possibly dead as a result of that to 30,000. Do you have any new estimate now for summing up of this war?

MS. PERINO: I don't with me, Helen, no. Obviously, it's entirely too many innocent Iraqis who have lost their lives. Remember, most of the people who have been killed in Iraq have been killed by extremists and terrorists. Things have gotten remarkably better, but we still have a ways to go because of the work that we've done, that General Petraeus has done and Ambassador Crocker, both on the military side with an increased number of troops, and then on the political surge, and working with the Iraqis to move forward on their new, fragile government.

That is all taking place at a time when we see that attacks are down across-the-board, but still not down far enough. As long as we keep at it and we keep working at it, we're confident that Iraq will become a country that can sustain, govern, and defend itself.

Q A British research organization said about a million Iraqis have died as a result.

MS. PERINO: I don't know if that's accurate.

Q The Iraqi government has called the Turkish incursion into northern Iraq a violation of its sovereignty and have demanded an immediate end to the operation. Now that the administration has called for this to be a short-term operation, has there been any change in the administration position, and what do you think would constitute "short term"? Are we talking days, weeks or beyond that?

MS. PERINO: Well, I'm not going to put a time frame on it. Obviously we support Turkey and we support Iraq. One of the things we have supported is that the two countries have regular contact and coordination during this incursion. We do want it to be short term, and we want it to be very narrowly targeted.

I would point out that there are Turkish officials, I understand, who are in Baghdad today, who are talking to their counterparts. And so we understand that Iraq does not want Turkey to be in their region, but they also don't want the PKK up in their northern region, and they understand what it's like to have terrorists attacking innocent civilians. And we believe that Turkey does have the right to defend itself.

So it's obviously a situation that none of us would choose to have, but it's one that the Turks, we believe, so far have been fairly responsible in moving forward with this operation. It's important that they continue to work with the Iraqis. And you can imagine that there's a lot of consternation on behalf of the Iraqis, but I think that's one of the things that is good about what's come out of this, is that as neighbors, Iraq and Turkey are talking this through.

Go ahead, Sheryl.

Q Dana, what is the White House position on the visit to North Korea by the New York Philharmonic? Do you believe that this is either helpful, or hurtful, to our diplomatic efforts there? And do you think that future visits should be banned or prevented until the North complies?

MS. PERINO: No to the second question. I think that we, as Americans, have been big proponents of the North Korean people. We have had problems with the regime, which has hidden its nuclear program. And the President, working with his allies, created the six-party talks, of which North Korea is a part. And North Korea made promises that they need to keep in terms of fully denuclearizing the Peninsula and giving us a full and accurate accounting of their proliferation activities, as well.

So they have a ways to go in order to meet those obligations. Once we get to those, we might then be able to see normalized relations begin. And part of normalized relations would include possible cultural exchanges, like the one that you saw today.

But I think at the end of the day, we consider this concert to be a concert, and it was not a diplomatic coup. There's a lot of things that it is not; what it is was a wonderful concert that the New York Philharmonic put on for the North Koreans -- for those who were able to see it. And you have to remember how many people in North Korea who weren't able to come and experience the New York Philharmonic, and we can't help but think about those people and the terrible conditions that they're living under.

Q So, in answer to the question, is it either helpful or hurtful to our efforts?

MS. PERINO: I don't know. I mean, if it spurs North Korea to do what it says it would do in the six-party talks, I guess you could look back and say it was helpful. But today I don't think we can say whether or not it was helpful. I would just say it was probably neutral.

Q Does the White House have any criticism for the Philharmonic for going?

MS. PERINO: No. I mean, it was a private invitation that was issued to them, and obviously the State Department would have to help with some logistics, which we did do.

Q Following on that -- during the visit the concert itself was carried live on national television in the evening, and the journalists, a lot of foreign journalists were allowed in and were even allowed unfettered Internet access to file their stories. Is there no value in any of that?

MS. PERINO: How many journalists were able to go out and about in the country and see other parts of -- out of the controlled environment that they were kept in? I just think that everyone needs to keep in mind that this is a regime that has brutally treated its people, there is a lot of starvation and repression, and people are not able to lead free and prosperous lives, like they could.

But the President is going to support the North Korean people, press on the six-party talks, as well as human rights abuses.

Elaine.

Q On FISA, could you just talk about what's behind this afternoon's background briefing? Is there something specific that prompted that? Because the President has made quite clear his position on retroactive --

MS. PERINO: Here's what's prompted it, actually. In my experience, having been following this issue for a long time and quite intensely, I think it is a very complex issue. And I believe that people here think that they would like to learn more about this issue so that they can have more background and understand the complexities of the issue and where we stand, and the positions that the Department of Justice and the Director of National Intelligence have taken. We thought it would be something that we should provide to you.

Q I mean, the President has made quite clear his position on retroactive liability and so on and so forth. What specifically is the point of confusion that you might be trying to address?

MS. PERINO: Elaine, I could go back to yesterday's transcript. There's just a lot -- there's a lot of issues, in terms of -- like this law has been in place since 1978. There's a lot of history here with this law. There's a lot that's happened between April of 2007 and August of 2007 when the Protect America Act first passed. There's confusion as to what are the implications and the consequences of not having the Protect America Act.

Now, I am not a lawyer, and this is a highly legal issue. You also have people at Department of Justice and the Director of National Intelligence who are directly working with the general counsels of the telecommunications companies that we need to have working with us. And they're the ones that are in communication with them, and understand their concerns and their needs. So this is an opportunity, if people want to attend, to get more information about that.

Q Let's put it on the record.

MS. PERINO: These are lawyers who are -- I'm on the record all the time, the Attorney General and the Director of National Intelligence -- who is testifying tomorrow -- will be on the record. This is background for your information and for your education, and if you want to attend, that would be great.

Q What's the big mystery here? Don't we know what this is about?

MS. PERINO: From where I stand, and the questions that I get, no, I don't think so.

Q Dana, other than providing more clarification in this background briefing -- or education, what have you, for reporters, can you explain what more can be done to break this stalemate? A 15-day extension was approved; it went away, and now the President got back from his Africa trip, a trip he said he would delay if it would help prod things along -- there's clearly no movement on it. So what more is the President and White House going to do?

MS. PERINO: That's part of the other reason. Obviously, there's two parts to the story; there's the process story, which people latch onto, in terms of how do you get there, but then there's also the substance story, about what are we talking about, and what do we need to do. So both stories are important.

On the process side of things, I would say that members of Congress are just back in town today after -- well, last night and this morning -- after a 10-day recess. They need to get together and figure out, where do they go from here? And I don't know exactly how they're going to do it either, but we continue to work with them. Our staff -- Dan Meyer, who is our Director of Legislative Affairs, has been there every day trying to work with them to see how we can get it done.

Peter.

Q In your opening statement you said, "as the housing market continues to transition." Given the plunge in housing values and home sales, just what does the administration think it's transitioning to at this point?

MS. PERINO: Well, as I said, as much as I know about economics, prices go up and down, and there are cycles, and it depends on how high and how low they go. And having good policies to make sure that the lows aren't too low is really important. And we don't exactly -- I can't tell you, I don't have a crystal ball to tell you where the housing market is for sure going. But one thing that is for sure is that we had an oversupply of housing, and now we're working our way through that problem.

Q So you think this is just -- what is happening now, what's dramatically happening now is just a part of a normal cycle?

MS. PERINO: Well, I don't know how else to explain it. Obviously, the housing market is a critical part of our economy. We're watching it very closely. We have several different programs, both here with -- that the federal government is running. We're asking Congress to take action on the FHA modernization. We've been asking since I think the spring of 2006 for them to take on a bill, which would allow the FHA to help more people with larger mortgages -- because you can have middle class areas now all across the country that have homes that are valued at over $400,000. If that's the case, then FHA today can't help them. But with the legislation, they could. So we're asking Congress to take some action on that, too.

Q Beyond the program that you said is on track to help 300,000 by the end of this year --

MS. PERINO: That's FHASecure.

Q -- is there anything else in the pipeline that the administration is going to do to address this?

MS. PERINO: Well, we have -- we're hoping that Congress will move forward and take up this FHA modernization bill, because we think that that will really help a good number of people. In addition to that, remember we are working with HOPE NOW, which is the Treasury Secretary and HUD Secretary's program working with the private sector. And within HOPE NOW, they also have Project Lifeline, which is for those individuals or families who could be at risk of losing their home imminently. I would remind you a number from Treasury that we have today is that 93 percent of homeowners across America are doing okay. They're being -- they're able to make their payments, and they're not in the category of people who need this help. But it's that 7 percent that we really have to focus on.

Roger.

Q Dana, on the trade items, what's it going to take to break the stalemate on Colombia, and later on, on South Korea?

MS. PERINO: Well, part of it would be highlighting the issue, like the President is going to do today, and talking to a bipartisan group of former government officials who have dedicated their lives to trade to put the pressure on. And I think that Congress recognizes that -- especially in regards to Colombia -- this is both in our national security and our economic interests. And so we'll continue to work with them. Obviously the push is going to be on.

Q Speaker Pelosi, though, has not indicated any notion of movement at this time, and is holding out for more assurances of protection of labor leaders in Colombia.

MS. PERINO: I'd have to refer you to our office for their scheduling.

Q I was just wondering, what's it going to take to get beyond that?

MS. PERINO: I don't know if we know for sure exactly what it's going to take, but one of the things that the President can do is continue to push. And he can do that with events like he's having today, and meetings in which they strategize to figure out how to make sure this free trade agreement becomes a reality.

Go ahead, Rich.

Q Just to follow on that, what is the Group of 20 that you're talking about? You said, "thank them for their work." What do they do? Are they working on this issue?

MS. PERINO: Yes, and many of them have written letters and have made phone calls, and made their positions known, and that can be very helpful. And we'll get you a list of the participants.

Q And you mentioned two of the three trade deals. I don't think you mentioned Panama. That's not coming up today?

MS. PERINO: No, he'll be focusing on Colombia and Korea.

` Matt. I'm sorry, is that a follow on that?

Q It's a follow-up -- yes.

MS. PERINO: Okay.

Q Does the President agree with the idea to review some chapters of NAFTA that are affecting the states on the border of the U.S.? Like, some governors of the border in the U.S. are saying that NAFTA is not good for their states, in terms of environment and other areas. Does the President agree with that notion that NAFTA has to be reviewed?

MS. PERINO: I haven't heard that. But I can check into it and get back to you.

Go ahead, Les.

Q Thank you, Dana. On another issue, the AP reports from Chicago that 20,000 people attending the Nation of Islam's Savior's Day spent nearly two hours hearing Lewis Farrakhan spend most of his speech praising Senator Obama as "the hope of the entire world who can lift America from her fall." And my question: Does the President believe that any religious organization's tax exemption should allow such endorsement of any political candidate?

MS. PERINO: I think we're just going to steer clear of that one. Move on to your next question; hurry up.

Q Do you want to evade that?

MS. PERINO: I do. So go on to your next one.

Q All right. As the nation's chief law enforcer, the President believes that the 3 million Hillary documents at the Clinton Presidential Library in Little Rock should not continue being concealed from the public, doesn't he?

MS. PERINO: I think that that's a matter for Hillary Clinton to answer.

Q But doesn't the President believe the public should have access to those documents, Dana?

MS. PERINO: As a journalist, I'll let you continue to pursue that with her office.

We'll go to Paula first.

Q On the housing issue, you mentioned -- or you attributed part of this to an over-supply of housing. But hasn't the administration also said that part of this is a necessary correction to inflated prices of homes?

MS. PERINO: We have said that, too. I didn't say that over-supply was the only reason.

Q And in terms of the FHASecure and the administration's efforts to keep people from losing their homes, why is the administration opposed to bankruptcy judges also trying to do the same thing?

MS. PERINO: Are you talking -- this is the Harry Reid bill, Senator Reid's bill up on Capitol Hill? We'll have a -- we will have a statement on administration policy that comes out this afternoon on that, so I will refer you to that. But I think the main concern is that it would lead to a contraction in the amount of mortgages, and flexibility for mortgages, and that's the last thing you need in a housing downturn.

Goyal.

Q Two quick questions. One, as far as FISA is concerned, U.S. officials and intelligence officials are saying that al Qaeda are training people in the U.S. to attack on Americans. That means there are al Qaeda in the U.S.?

MS. PERINO: I'll refer you to the intelligence community for that, Goyal. I can't say.

One thing I would point out is the reports today that the Taliban is threatening in Afghanistan to -- threatening telecommunications carriers and mobile phone carriers for providing their services because they think that we might be listening in on their terrorist phone calls. It's the whole point of the program, is to make sure that we are listening in to make sure that we can prevent attacks on American people.

Q As far as the sanctions on Burma, yesterday when President employed sanctions -- sanctions has been going on in Burma on and off for the last 20 years and it has not been working. And mostly dictators in Burma, military dictators are benefitting, but people are hurting. So if we don't get full support from China, it's not going to work again. So where do we stand now?

MS. PERINO: Well, we continue to pressure other countries to support us. And obviously, Secretary Rice is in the region right now and I'll refer you to the State Department, because I'm sure she'll bring it up.

Q Thank you.

END 1:14 P.M. EST


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