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

For Immediate Release
Office of the Press Secretary
April 5, 2001

Press Briefing by Ari Fleischer

Personnel/travel announcements............................1
U.S.-China/discussions about military plane............2-14
Chinese American scholar/espionage charge.............14-15
Senate vote on budget..........................15-16, 19-20
Salmonella ruling/Secretary Veneman...................16-19
Middle East/violence..................................19-20


Office of the Press Secretary

For Immediate Release April 5, 2001


The James S. Brady Briefing Room

12:09 P.M. EDT

               MR. FLEISCHER:  Good afternoon.  I want to begin today with some personnel announcements and some travel information.  The President intends to nominate Joseph J. Jen to be Under Secretary of Agriculture for Research, Education, and Economics.  The President intends to nominate Mary Kirtley Waters to be Assistant Secretary of Agriculture for Congressional Relations.  The President intends to nominate Jeffrey R. Holmstead to be an Assistant Administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency for Air and Radiation.  And final personnel announcement, the President intends to nominate Eileen J. O'Connor to be Assistant Attorney General for the Tax Division.

          President Bush will visit Poland during his June trip to Europe. The United States and Poland share a broad agenda of common interests and values in Europe and beyond, and the President looks forward to reviewing ways in which the United States and Poland, old friends and new allies, can intensify cooperation and pursuit of our common goals.

          And with that, I'm pleased to take any questions you may have.

          Q    Ari, what is the evidence that leads U.S. officials to now be encouraged about talks going on with China to resolve this?  Or have talks turned cold?

          MR. FLEISCHER:  There's intensive diplomacy underway.  The United States and China are heavily engaged in their discussions.  There was a meeting at the State Department this morning between Deputy Secretary Armitage and Ambassador Yang, and in the course of that meeting the United States pressed again for access to the crew, for the release of the crew. And we remain in a sensitive stage of those negotiations, of those discussions.  And that is where matters stand as we speak.

          Q    Can you report progress?

          MR. FLEISCHER:  I'm reluctant to give a word one way or another to it, due to the sensitivity of where the negotiations and discussions currently stand.  And so I would be reticent to use any types of adjectives like that.  The meetings are -- as I indicated, the meeting took place this morning, and we do anticipate ongoing, intensive diplomacy.

          Q    What was the reaction when we pressed again this morning for the release of the crew?

          MR. FLEISCHER:  That's part of the ongoing diplomacy.

          Q    Was it any different than it's been the previous four days?

          MR. FLEISCHER:  Due to the sensitive nature of it I'm not going to characterize the answers.  Again, we are in the middle of something that is ongoing with the Chinese government.  The President has made the position of the government clear, and that position the President took when he addressed the nation and said that the time has come for our men and women to come home is the focus of the remarks that are being conveyed privately as well, in addition to the return of the airplane, and that continues to be the status, and it is ongoing.

          Q    Ari, what is the reaction of this government to the suggestion that things might not have escalated to this point as rapidly as they did if the President had not become involved as soon as he did and with as rhetoric as forceful as it was?

          MR. FLEISCHER:  I think the President said what the United States needed to say -- that is, that it is time for our servicemen and women to come home.  The incident took place on a Saturday night -- the accident took place Saturday night,  The President did not say anything on Sunday. He spoke out, as he intended to do, on Monday and on Tuesday.  And we are now in the middle of some very intensive discussions and diplomacy, and that's where we are.

          Q    A follow-up, if I may.  As you know, there are some observers who have suggested that if Secretary of State Powell had, for example, made a call to some Chinese counterpart earlier on and sort of laid out the situation as the United States saw it, that perhaps things would not have escalated to the point that they did.

          MR. FLEISCHER:  No, I think many other observers have said that the President spoke out directly, plainly, forthrightly and wisely.  And, of course, contacts were made with Chinese officials immediately after the accident, as well as on Sunday, and the President has acted in a way that I think most observers have viewed as productive.

          Q    As part of these more intensive discussions, are there military-to-military discussions going on in addition to the foreign ministries and the diplomatic efforts?

          MR. FLEISCHER:  This is being handled through diplomatic channels.

          Q    Is there any contact, military-to-military?

          MR. FLEISCHER:  That's a question you really need to ask to DOD. But this is being handled through diplomatic channels.

          Q    Is the President employing any private citizens as go-betweens, including his father?

          MR. FLEISCHER:  We discussed yesterday at great length the question of the President and his father.  I'm not going to go beyond what I indicated yesterday.

          Q    Not a private conversation with his father, is he employing for the government a private citizen as a go-between?

          MR. FLEISCHER:  Terry, the contacts have been between the United States government through diplomatic channels and the Chinese government. And that has been the contacts that I'm aware of.  There are people, of course, here, in the National Security Council staff, other staff, who will talk to people outside the United States government.  But that does not mean the people they're talking to are in contact with Chinese officials, necessarily.

          Q    So there are no private citizens being used as go-betweens?

          MR. FLEISCHER:  None that I'm aware of.

          Q    Is it still the United States government's unambiguous position that it will not offer an explicit apology for the incident?

          MR. FLEISCHER:  The position of the United States is unchanged on that measure.

          Q    Just a follow-up.  Is the idea of a special envoy to China, is that something under active consideration?

          MR. FLEISCHER:  That is not under active consideration.           Q    Is it under any consideration at all?

          MR. FLEISCHER:  Nothing that I'm aware.

          Q    Let me ask you one more question.  Are the two sides, the U.S. and China, at the point of exchanging explanations about the circumstances that led to the collision?  Is that -- are we at the point where they're exchanging their sense of what happened?

          MR. FLEISCHER:  During the course of the many meetings that have been held, they have been discussing the accident, and the United States has made it clear that one of the best ways to ascertain the cause of the accident is to allow us to meet with our crew, to talk to the crew and, of course, to bring the crew home.  Who better to explain the circumstances of the accident than the people who were involved in it.

          The best way to have that discussion is to have access to the crew, which is something the United States has pressed for.

          Q    Would the U.S. support any kind of commission, a Chinese-American commission, to look at investigating the cause of the collision and what happened?

          MR. FLEISCHER:  I'm not going to speculate about any future steps that may or may not be taken.  But the United States is interested in determining the exact cause of the accident.

          Mr. Angle, who is sitting in a different seat today.

          Q    I moved up here in the question zone.  I understand that your language yesterday, if I remember correctly, was that we don't understand the need for an apology.  What you seemed to just be saying was that we can't really ascertain what the facts of the matter are until we have talked with the crew.

          MR. FLEISCHER:  A separate question, Jim.  I was asked about the apology, and the answer is, the United States' position on an apology has not changed.  In terms of the accident, the best way to determine the exact facts and circumstances of the accident, which took place over international waters and international airspace, is to talk to the crew.

          Q    You're saying you don't understand -- the U.S. does not understand the need for an apology, which obviously you could not until you know the facts of the situation.  Do we have some independent knowledge of the facts, or does that require us to talk to the crew?

          MR. FLEISCHER:  They're two separate questions.  There's no link between the apology and then the facts of the accident, which took place in international airspace.

          Q    Ari, twice today in this briefing, you've used -- started to use the word "negotiations," and then changed it to the words --

          MR. FLEISCHER:  You can use both.

          Q    -- to the discussions.  Is there any difference?

          MR. FLEISCHER:  You can use both.

          Q    Ari, Senator Lugar is implying that the pilot of the Chinese jet plane that crashed and apparently hit our plane was sort of a hot dog, so to speak, and he had been harassing this plane before on one of its missions.  Now, can you talk about that?  Also, the word, "interrogation" has been used of our crew members.  Are they, in fact, being interrogated, as far as you know?

          MR. FLEISCHER:  Ivan, I'm not going to characterize the actions of the Chinese pilot.  I think that underscores the reason why we need to talk to our crew, who was in the presence of the Chinese pilot.  They can best address those questions.

          The Chinese have said from the beginning of this accident that they want to investigate the causes of it themselves, that they wanted to interview the crew or to question the crew.  We do know from the meeting that was held with the crew that they have been treated well, and that's where that matter stands.

          Q    Just to follow the question of semantics, an interview if fine, but it's not nearly as strong as interrogate, and the word coming out of Beijing, as I understand it, is interrogation.  Does that concern the President and the administration at all?

          MR. FLEISCHER:  Our understanding is that they would like to interview or question the crew.

          Q    Following up on something you said this morning, if there is questioning of the crew, would you demand a U.S. presence during that?

          MR. FLEISCHER:  I'm not going to deal with any hypotheticals about potential questioning of the crew.

          Q    Have U.S. representatives in the room if they are questioned?

          MR. FLEISCHER:  Our position is that the Americans should be removed from the situation and be brought home.  And we continue to press that case.

          Q    Ari, when Americans are detained overseas it is common practice for the embassy or the consulate to go to considerable lengths to provide whatever local representation is appropriate before the investigating board.  Why aren't we doing that?

          MR. FLEISCHER:  We would like to be with the Americans at all times, of course.

          Q    This heavier diplomatic engagement, when did this start and what prompted it?  Was it a more openness by China diplomats to talk to our diplomats?  Was it something they did, something we did?  How would you characterize this?

          MR. FLEISCHER:  I think it's part of the ongoing events as the world watches them unfold, and part of the United States commitment to get our men and women home.  The President, in his conversations with Secretary Powell and with National Security Advisor Rice, has directed them to take the steps that bring our men and women home, and that's reflected in the conversations that are being held on the diplomatic level.  There is a heavy engagement on the diplomatic level and that's well and good.

          Q    But that is a change from what had been happening for the last four days.

          MR. FLEISCHER:  I'm not prepared to characterize reasons why any of those events are happening.  Again, there still remains a sensitive stage of these talks, and I'll leave it at that.

          Q    But it does appear that Chinese diplomats are more open to discussions with the U.S. about how this occurred and what the next step will be than they have been in the previous four days.

          MR. FLEISCHER:  I'm going to refrain from characterizing the Chinese statements.  I'll characterize the American ones.

          Q    Ari, the public may not be --

          Q    Ari, from the outset, the Chinese have said that the incident or the collision was caused by the U.S. plane swerving into their plane.  Now, four or five days after the incident, we see a published report saying, indeed, the U.S. plane did make an abrupt turn.  Why wasn't the U.S. government more forthcoming with that information at the outset?

          MR. FLEISCHER:  Well, I think that the facts are not clear.  And that is again why it's very important for the United States to have access and talk to the crew.  If you want to know what took place in the air between -- actually among three different airplanes, the best way is to talk to the crew who was involved.  So I think you need to withhold on judgment about those facts until the crew is talked to at greater length.

          Q    And if I could follow up on that, Ari, how can we be sure that an apology from the U.S. is unwarranted if we don't have an understanding of the basic facts of the situation?

          MR. FLEISCHER:  Again, the basic facts are that the P-3 was operating in international airspace.

          Q    But that doesn't -- I mean, you can still do something wrong in international airspace, can't you?

          MR. FLEISCHER:  It's the right to fly in international airspace, which is why the United States, as we have said repeatedly, did nothing wrong.  It is the government's right to fly in international airspace around the world.

          Q    That doesn't rule out error by the crew of the aircraft or a number of other things which could be offensive that an aircraft could do in international airspace.

          MR. FLEISCHER:  Yes, I think that's why it's important to talk to the crew.  But we have made our position very clear on it for a variety of good reasons, not all of which I'm at liberty to get into.

          Q    Does that mean our position on an apology could change once we've talked to the crew and discover what happened?

          MR. FLEISCHER:  No, the position on the apology is clear and consistent.

          Q    Ari, even if those discussions with the crew eventually reveal that that crew perhaps made a mistake which caused the accident, you still would not apologize?

          MR. FLEISCHER:  The reason we have said what -- the United States government has said what it's said about the apology is based on information that we have, and I'm not going to go beyond that.

          Q    Ari, two days ago, the President made a very clear statement saying, give us the crew, give us the plane; in essence, saying time is running out.  Two days later, we've got nothing -- no crew, no plane, and no greater access to the crew.  Shouldn't the public be concerned that China is not meeting any of these requests or demands?

          MR. FLEISCHER:  No, David.  In the President's approach on this, he is not going to act or react based on news cycles.  He's going to continue to lead in the manner that he thinks is the most productive way to bring our men and women home.  And that's why, again, you've seen this pace of diplomacy that we are engaged in with China, and that is continuing. That is the President's position.

          Q    Right.  But the public is being told that there is intense diplomacy, and it's not getting anywhere so far.

          MR. FLEISCHER:  I think all Americans have reason to be concerned and want our crew home.  So there is cause for concern, of course, because our crew remains in China.  And the President is concerned; that's why he spoke out as he did.  And I think the American people have cause for concern about Americans not coming home.

          Q    Is China showing any good faith here in this negotiation?

          MR. FLEISCHER:  Again, there remain discussions at a very sensitive stage.  I'm going to refrain from characterizing them one way or other, in order to allow the most productive events to develop.

          Q    Ari, could we fix the budget for a minute?

          Q    A couple more on China.

          MR. FLEISCHER:  Mike, we'll come back to you then.

          Q    Ari, you've talked about a couple of times this week, and Scott talked on Monday, about roles played in the administration by Dr. Rice, Secretary Rumsfeld, Secretary Powell.  One thing that hasn't come up, at least that I'm aware of, is the Vice President.  What's his role been in this?

          MR. FLEISCHER:  The Vice President's been participating in the intelligence meetings with the President, receiving information about it. And as in all issues, the Vice President lends his advice to the President, about what course of action to take.

          Q    Ari, is there concern that because of these events, that Congress may revoke China's normal trade relations status?

          MR. FLEISCHER:  Well, we're aware of various statements that are being made up on Capitol Hill, and as far as the President's concerned, it underscores what he said two days ago, that this matter needs to be resolved and our men and women brought home in order to avoid any damage to United States-China relations.

          Q    At this point, the White House is still going to push for normal trade relations for China if the vote does come up in the spring, as well?

          MR. FLEISCHER:  The President is taking it one step at a time.

          Q    So he may not support that?

          MR. FLEISCHER:  I'm not indicating -- I'm not indicating that one way or another.  The President is taking events one step at a time.

          Q    Ari, to follow on that, a number of congressional trips were planned, or are planned, for during the recess to China.  I think one office is telling a colleague of mine at CNN the White House is encouraging lawmakers to go forward with these trips, that continued contact is good. Can you say, A, is the White House encouraging lawmakers to continue with their plans?

          MR. FLEISCHER:  The White House is not objecting to any trips that lawmakers have to China.

          Q    Can you say if the members have come to the White House and said, is this okay, should we go?

          MR. FLEISCHER:  I think members are sensitive to what is happening diplomatically, sensitive to what's happening, given the fact that there are 24 servicemen in China, and so they're asking proper questions, and the White House has made it clear.

          Q    Why would the White House not object, because some members are deciding that they think it's not in the right interests to go if 24 crew members are detained there?

          MR. FLEISCHER:  The judgment of the President, the judgment of the White House.

          Q         Ari, can I come back to interrogation?  Do the Chinese have the right to interrogate these people, or are they just entitled to name, rank and serial number?

          MR. FLEISCHER:  Well, we have the right to have our men and women returned home, is the President's view.  And that's what his focus is on. And absent their immediate return to the United States we want to have American officials with the American crew at all times.  And that is the position of the government.

          Q    But do they have the right to interrogate these people?  If you say that you understand, it's understandable they would want to investigate what happened --

          MR. FLEISCHER:  If you're asking me a legal question, that's a question that you really need to address to consular officials who have a legal understanding of these issues.  That's a very specific legal question about rights, and it's not at all clear.

          Q    Is the President -- there's also some pressure in Congress to oppose China's bid for the Olympics.  Does the President have any position at this time on whether or not China should be given the Olympics?

          MR. FLEISCHER:  Similar to what -- in responding to Keith's question, the President is going to take this one step at a time.  The President, as he said two days ago, hopes that this will not damage long-term United States-China relations.

          Q    Is it your sense and have you communicated to the Chinese that one of the problems here is they're risking not only a congressional backlash, but also a public backlash?

          MR. FLEISCHER:  Well, this is what the President indicated two days ago, that unless this matter is resolved, it does risk harming United States-China relations.  And during the meeting that the President had with Deputy Premier Qian Qichen, what they focused on in the Oval Office was entirely positive.  They talked about the fruitful, growing relations between the United States and China, the many opportunities our two nations have, particularly in the area of trade, which are mutually beneficial. That was the tenor of the meeting.  And the President continues to believe that there are many fruitful opportunities between the United States and China, particularly in the areas of trade.

          It underscores what the President said two days ago, though, that unless this matter is resolved, it does threaten to harm future U.S.-China relations.

          Q    A public backlash or congressional backlash would in some ways take away the President's control over this issue.

          MR. FLEISCHER:  I can only speak to the President, the President's thoughts, the President's actions.

          Q    Is he concerned about losing control of this issue as Congress and the public becomes angry about it and decides to take their own position on various things like Olympics --

          MR. FLEISCHER:  I see no evidence that it has reached that point.

          Q    And what does he say to the public who -- many people feel a natural upwelling of anger and sentiment over seeing these American men and women held, detained against their will, now interrogated.  What does he say to people who are getting downright angry about this?

          MR. FLEISCHER:  Well, as the President said publicly after he talked to Ambassador Prueher who met with the servicemen and women, that all Americans will be relieved to know that they've been treated well and that their health is well.  But all Americans want them to come home.  And so the President understands the feeling of the country, that it is time for them to come home, and that's why he's engaged in the diplomacy that he is.

          MS. COUNTRYMAN:  It wasn't Prueher, it was Sealock.

          MR. FLEISCHER:  I'm sorry, thank you.  Sealock, General Sealock, not Ambassador Prueher who met with the servicemen and women.

          Q    Ari, could I just be clear about the administration's position?  Before this incident, the President did support normal trade relations for China, is that correct?

          MR. FLEISCHER:  That is correct.

          Q    Ari, and now your position is, we have to take things one step at a time.  That's what you're saying on that?

          MR. FLEISCHER:  That is the President's position on both measures.

          Q    Are you talking about how this goes on, there might be a risk of damaging the U.S.-China relationship.  Is there also a risk, on a political level, of diminishing the effectiveness, perhaps, of the presidency?  In other words, if this becomes a hostage debacle, does that harm him politically?  I realize his first priority right now is to get our people home, but is there any concern in the White House politically that this could hurt his presidency?

          MR. FLEISCHER:  That's such a hypothetical I'm not even going to deal with that.  The White House's focus has been on one thing, and it's not politics.  It's getting our men and women home.  And again, I want to remind you that it remains at a very sensitive stage, and that's where we stand as we speak today, at 12:30 p.m. or so.  That's where we stand at this very moment.

          Q    Is it the United States government's position that the United States has not yet learned whether our reconnaissance aircraft swerved or not, we simply don't know, or did we learn from the initial meeting with the crew what happened?

          MR. FLEISCHER:  What I've indicated is, the best way to ascertain information is to talk directly with the crew.  The United States, of course, has other ways of obtaining information which I'm not at liberty to get into.  But the best way to obtain that information is to meet with the crew.

          Q    Are you saying that that means the U.S. government at this point remains ignorant of the facts of whether the plane swerved or not?

          MR. FLEISCHER:  No, I have just indicated the United States government has other information, additional information, as is typical in the matter of flights, and I'm not at liberty to get into that, as you can imagine.

          Q    Ari, two questions, one to follow up on that.  Did General Sealock raise the issue of how the incident took place in his initial contacts with the pilot and the rest of the crew?  And, secondly, is it still the President's plan to travel for the baseball game tomorrow afternoon, or is there a possibility that he's going to have to stay here?

          MR. FLEISCHER:  The President's travel plans are unchanged, as previously announced.  And as far as your first question, I might need to go back to look at my notes on the conversation he had with them, but they did describe the emergency situation they were in, the mayday distress, the call they put out, their landing on the runway, and those were the steps they took.  As you know, the plane dropped 8,000 feet right after the accident.  They were able to regain control of the airplane and bring it in on an emergency landing.

          Q    Has the President talked to any member of the Chinese government in the last five days?

          MR. FLEISCHER:  Ron, the President has taken the actions that he believes are the most productive to resolve this.  The President is prepared to take additional actions as he deems necessary.  The short answer to your question is, no, he is not.  His judgment remains that he will take those actions that are most productive to bring this matter to a conclusion, so that our men and women get home.  Of course, he has been in frequent contact with Secretary Powell, Secretary Powell spoke with Chinese officials last night, as you know.

          As I indicated this morning, there was an additional meeting at the State Department this morning.  The President has been monitoring those events very, very closely.

          Q    Can I clarify one thing on normal trade status and support for China's Olympic bid.  Previously, you were saying the President was in favor of those things, and now, that his view on that is pending.

          MR. FLEISCHER:  I said that the President is in favor, and the President is taking it one step at a time.  They are both accurate descriptions of the President's view.

          Q    But he has been in favor, but on this particular day, he is not saying that he is in favor?

          MR. FLEISCHER:  No, I said the President is in favor, and the President is taking it one step at a time.

          Q    Do you object to the language to consider it pending now his support of --

          MR. FLEISCHER:  The President's made his position clear; he's taking it one step at a time.

          Q    If we said that you wouldn't object?

          MR. FLEISCHER:  I never object to anything that you say.

          Q    Ari, did you reply to both the Olympic bid and normal trade relations -- the U.S. government's position is that China --

          MR. FLEISCHER:  On the U.S. government position on the Olympics in China in 2008, I have not directly discussed that with the President.

          Q    Ari, yesterday you said that the formal charging of the Chinese American scholar was a separate issue from the plane and crew incident -- accident.  Why does the White House believe there is no connection there?

          MR. FLEISCHER:  The Chinese government arrested Gao Zhan several weeks ago, and we do not see a tie between the two events.  Obviously, it predated the accident, so there can be no tie.

          Q    -- the formal charges coming after this was a coincidence, then?

          MR. FLEISCHER:  It's the judgment of the government, the United States government, the President, that there is no tie.

          Q    Does the U.S. think she's a spy then?  Does the U.S. think that she was spying?

          MR. FLEISCHER:  No, the United States believes that she should be released.

          Q    What about the spying --

          MR. FLEISCHER:  We see no evidence of that.

          Q    Ari, budget.  You suffered a setback in the Senate yesterday.  Can you tell us what the President is doing specifically and personally, to try to --

          MR. FLEISCHER:  I talked to the President about that both last night and this morning.  And the President's point of view is this is the beginning of a process in which there will be many votes.  And as Senate watchers know, those votes are often revisited rather quickly after they're taken.  So the fact that a vote fell one way one moment is not a sure indication it will remain that way.

          The President actually took heart in the fact that the Democrats have a new position on taxes, that they now support a tax cut in excess of $1.1 trillion, while he continues to think the right number is $1.6 trillion.  So it's further evidence of the Democrats moving toward the President, albeit, they are not at the point where the President himself is, they continue to move in the right direction.  That was how the President viewed that vote.

          Now, the President remains engaged in the vote in the Senate. He's been in regular contact with our Hill people, and he will continue to do so.  There are a series of conversations going on with people on the Hill.  And I do have to say, welcome to the world of the 50-50 Senate.  I think you can presume that on many major votes, in a 50-50 Senate, they will be close.

But again, it underscores it as the beginning of a process, and a process the President will work very hard to make come out his way.

          Q    Can you tell us specifically if he is talking to members himself?

          MR. FLEISCHER:  He has.

          Q    Like Senator Jeffords?

          MR. FLEISCHER:  He has not directly talked with Senator Jeffords.

          Q    This week he talked to Hill members?

          MR. FLEISCHER:  Yes.

          Q    Has he talked to Specter?

          MR. FLEISCHER:  I'm not going to go down the list of all of them. And the President often has meetings in the residence or phone calls that he likes to keep private.  But he has talked with a number of people, including Democrats.  We're going to -- the President will continue to watch the process, and get involved in it as deeply as is necessary or not necessary to fight for his budget.

          Q    -- level of communication between Senator Helms and the White House on the Cellucci nomination?

          MR. FLEISCHER:  I'll have to get back to you on that.

          Q    Ari, on energy, yesterday the Chairman of the Fed said he didn't view the California situation as a crisis.  Are you concerned that he has a different view, or do you agree --

          MR. FLEISCHER:  As you know, the White House doesn't comment on statements made by the Fed.

          Q    Why the reversal on salmonella?

          MR. FLEISCHER:  Well, it's not a reversal.  The Secretary is the one who makes those decisions, and the Secretary had not made a decision until today.

          Q    But the Department announced last week that it was changing the regulation.

          MR. FLEISCHER:  That had not yet been brought to the Secretary's decision.  And the Secretary makes those decisions.  This was a case in which officials at the Department of Agriculture were -- had some options that they were reviewing.  But the Secretary had made it clear that nothing would happen until she checked off on it, and that she said that she wanted to discuss it with consumer groups prior to checking off on it.

          She started to have those discussions with some consumer groups. She's made her decision today, and made it clear, that the United States Department of Agriculture will continue to have those standards in place, to protect school lunches, so that we can inspect the meals, so there is no salmonella present.

          Q    Did the newspapers get this wrong, Ari, or --

          MR. FLEISCHER:  I'm sorry?

          Q    Did the newspapers get this story wrong, or was there bad guidance being given out by --

          MR. FLEISCHER:  Never say a newspaper got something wrong, at least publicly.  (Laughter.)

          Q    Or did you guys not like the headline?

          MR. FLEISCHER:  No, I think the newspapers faithfully reported what an official at the Department of Agriculture said, but that official is not the Secretary of Agriculture.  It is the Secretary of Agriculture who makes those decisions.

          Q    How much politics though went into the decision making, giving the criticism you've had for people saying supporting this is too much?

          MR. FLEISCHER:  Let me give you --

          Q    Did you want to get away from the very headline that was in the Post this morning?

          MR. FLEISCHER:  The Secretary made her decision based on the merits and based on protecting schoolchildren.  Yesterday the Secretary met with the President in the Oval Office for approximately 45 minutes to talk about protecting the United States from foot and mouth disease.  This topic did not even come up, which is an indication that you would think this was an action the Secretary is about to take, she would have discussed it with the President.  There was no such discussion of the topic because it was not on the top of the Secretary's list because she had not taken the action that was reported, that was attributed to another official at the Department of Agriculture.

          Q    -- hours away from taking it, so why wouldn't she say, tomorrow I'm going to announce that I'm sticking with these regulations?

          MR. FLEISCHER:  I think that once an official at the Department of Agriculture said something that was not in keeping with what the Secretary knew she was going to do, the Secretary may have adjusted her timetable to make the announcement.  But I think it's just the opposite, Ron.  You would think that if this was the Secretary's action that would land on the front page of the nation's newspaper, she would discuss that with the President.

          Q    Are you saying she adjusted her timetable because of the story in the paper today?

          MR. FLEISCHER:  I think that's fair to say.

          Q    What's wrong with the reasoning is it was announced earlier. I mean, would it be too cynical to assume that people in here saw that headline and they --

          MR. FLEISCHER:  When you say it was announced earlier, what are you referring to?

          Q    It was published as an intent to change the regulation a matter of days ago.  And would it be too cynical to assume that people saw the early additions of the paper, saw that headline, and said, we can't have this in the wake of everything else -- arsenic and everything else?

          MR. FLEISCHER:  Again, because the Secretary made clear last week in speaking with consumer groups that she had not made a decision on it and would not until she thoroughly reviewed it.  And then this decision apparently was made by somebody who was not in a position to make the decision for the Secretary.  The Secretary saw it and she made her decision.

          Q    That's the question.  What's going on over at Ag if somebody below the Secretary would announce a change in policy without asking the head of the department?

          MR. FLEISCHER:  Well, Jim, I may be new in town, but I guess that's the first instance of a mid-level official at an agency saying something and the press getting a hold of it and the press reporting it without it being authorized by the Secretary.

          Q    -- somebody popping off who doesn't know the policy or wants the policy to be different?  Is the President concerned about that?

          MR. FLEISCHER:  What's important is the Secretary has addressed the policy and taken the necessary action to make sure that our nation's school lunches are free from salmonella.

          Q    One more on budget.  Can I ask you --

          Q    -- is something happening to this low-level official who did leak incorrect information?  Is he being, or she being punished in some way?

          MR. FLEISCHER:  No, I'm sure that there's just a discussion underway to make certain that people in the agencies know that it is Secretaries who make decisions.

          Q    Ari, on the budget, Senate Republicans are saying part of the reason the President's plan lost yesterday is because he wasn't doing enough, that he's not engaged enough, he wasn't phone-calling enough, wasn't trying to lobby enough, he's just not engaged enough.  And they're saying this on the Hill more and more today.

          MR. FLEISCHER:  I'm not aware of any people who will vote for the budget who are saying that.  I think people who are saying that are people who would not vote for the budget in any case, and they're always looking for any little option, any little way to tweak the President.

          Q    Tom Daschle says that that vote indicates it's time to negotiate.  Why not?

          MR. FLEISCHER:  The President continues to believe that the budget that he proposed is the right budget for the country, and he is going to continue to press for it.

          Q    Well, if the Democrats are moving towards the President, why wouldn't -- they're being so accommodating, why wouldn't the President move a little bit towards them?

          MR. FLEISCHER:  They may keep moving.  (Laughter.)

          Q    On the Middle East, does the White House have any observation, criticism, whatever, on the latest violence which has escalated sharply in the past two days?

          MR. FLEISCHER:  It reaffirms what the President has said -- that we need to make sure that the violence ends.  As you know, there was a meeting in the Middle East.  The United States is playing a role as being a facilitator, and the United States will continue to do that.

          We need to take one last question, because I've got to go with the President to his speech.

          Q    Ari, does the President believe that it is possible to address Senator Jeffords' concerns and his request for additional special ed funding, and still keep with his planned 4 percent cap on discretionary spending growth, keep his full tax cut and not eat up a significant chunk of his contingency fund?

          MR. FLEISCHER:  That proposal that Senator Jeffords is making is not in the area of domestic discretionary -- I believe it's in the area of entitlements.  And all of that is being discussed.  And the President remains committed to his $1.6-trillion tax cut.  We will continue to work with senators and see what the final outcome is, and that is something that Senator Jeffords cares very deeply about.

          And I do have to -- you don't want to make me miss the car.

          Q    Is he equally committed to his contingency fund?

          MR. FLEISCHER:  The President's contingency fund?  Yes.  And the reason the President has proposed a contingency fund is to deal with contingencies.  (Laughter.)

          Q    Like Senator Jeffords.  (Laughter.)

                               END        12:43 P.M. EDT


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