For Immediate Release
Office of the Press Secretary
March 6, 2006
Press Briefing by Scott McClellan
James S. Brady Briefing Room
12:25 P.M. EST
MR. MCCLELLAN: Let me begin with an announcement on the President's schedule. The President will welcome President Toledo of Peru to the White House on March 10th. The visit will be an opportunity for the President to underscore his appreciation for President Toledo's leadership in promoting democracy in the Western Hemisphere and expanding free trade and economic growth. The two leaders will also discuss continuing cooperation in areas of mutual interest.
Secondly, let me just kind of touch on some of what the President talked about earlier today. The President was pleased to participate in the swearing-in ceremony for our new Chairman of the Council of Economic Advisers, Ed Lazear. As the President indicated, he has great confidence that Ed will do an outstanding job in that position.
The President also talked about our current economic situation. Our economy is the envy of the world. Last year our economy grew at a strong 3.5 percent, faster than any other industrialized nation. Nearly 4.8 million new jobs have been created since the summer of '03. The unemployment rate is the lowest it's been since July of '01, at 4.7 percent -- that is also below the averages of the '70s, '80s and '90s. Home ownership is at an all-time high. Minority home ownership is at record levels. Real after tax income is up more than 8 percent since 2001. We've seen 33 straight months of growth in the manufacturing sector, and productivity growth is strong.
We need to continue to build upon the pro-growth policies that we put in place. The President talked about that earlier. We need to act to make the tax relief permanent so that people can have more to save, spend and invest. We also need to fund cutting-edge research into cleaner and more reliable technologies, like hydrogen and ethanol, so that we can change the way -- really transform the way we power our homes and our cars and our businesses.
We also need to continue to act to make health care more affordable and available through expanding health savings accounts and associated health plans. And the President also talked about the importance of making sure we have an educated, skilled workforce for the 21st century.
Following the swearing-in ceremony, the President stopped by a meeting of the Academic Competitiveness Council, and the President talked about the importance of their work. This is chaired by our Secretary of Education, Margaret Spellings. And he talked about needing -- making sure that we have an educated workforce to keep America the most competitive and innovative economy in the world. And that means investing in research and development and our sciences and math -- and making sure we have more teachers for math and science, and making sure that we have good job-training policies in place so that workers have the skills to fill those high-paying, high-growth jobs.
But one of the most important steps that we need to take to keep our economy growing is to restrain federal spending here in Washington. And the President talked about that in his remarks. The President is serious about reducing wasteful spending. He wants to make sure that we are spending taxpayer dollars wisely. That is a high priority for the President. Our nation is at war. We must fund our priorities, and then we must work to hold the line on spending elsewhere in the budget.
And this President has acted to reduce growth in non-security discretionary spending. We cut it last year. In the 2007 budget, he has proposed cutting that spending again so that we stay on track to cut the deficit in half by 2009. And the President also talked about the importance of longer-term entitlement reform to slow the growth in our entitlement programs. And that's the way to really rein in spending over the long-term. In 2006, we were able to -- or just this year, for the 2006 budget period, we were able to pass nearly $40 billion in mandatory savings over the next five years. In 2007, the President wants to build on that, and he has proposed an additional $65 billion in savings.
The American people want their leaders in Washington also to act on earmark reform. Congress has expressed a willingness to do so, and the President, today, is sending up to Congress line-item veto legislation that will allow us to reduce wasteful spending. This will give the President authority to strip special interest spending and earmarks out of spending bills and send it back to Congress for an up or down vote. The President talked about that in his remarks.
He believes that this is an area where there is strong bipartisan support, and we can work together to reduce wasteful spending, cut the deficit, and save -- and make sure that we are spending taxpayer dollars wisely. It's important that we have accountability, and the President believes that this is a way to really shine the light on some of the most questionable spending here in Washington, D.C., and provide the kind of accountability that the American people expect here in Washington.
With that, I will be glad to go to your questions. Nedra, go ahead.
Q When the line-item veto vote came up a couple of years ago, there were 89 Republicans in the House who voted against it, including most of the members of the Appropriations Committee. Is the President confident that there will be more support this time around?
MR. McCLELLAN: I think that there is a strong willingness and a lot of bipartisan support for acting on this line-item veto legislation. And the President has provided a way forward that meets the constitutional issues that were raised when this was previously passed back in the '90s, and the Supreme Court ruled on that one.
We believe by sending this back to Congress for an up or down vote that it addresses that constitutional issues. And Congress -- a number of congressional leaders have indicated their commitment to addressing earmarks and to reforming the earmark process. This is an important tool for achieving that shared objective.
Q The Supreme Court had ruled --
MR. McCLELLAN: Let me go to Jim. Go ahead.
Q I just wanted to ask in advance of the trip to New Orleans, something that broke last week that I don't think in the middle of the trip everybody sort of got their arms around -- I'm hoping you can clarify for me. That Associated Press report last week, it seemed to suggest that on the Thursday after Katrina, the President gave this interview on "Good Morning America" where he said there was no way to anticipate the severity of the storms or the levees breaking; and then from the briefing on Sunday, it appears as though Max Mayfield and others are telling him that's exactly what could happen. Is there a contradiction here?
MR. McCLELLAN: Well, I think the transcript actually talks about levees being over-topped. But we've already made clear what the President was referring to in that interview, and unfortunately some have taken it out of context and continue to take it out of context. The President made it very clear what he was referring to. If you will recall on August 29th when the hurricane hit and then it passed the New Orleans area, there were a number of reports -- including media reports -- saying that New Orleans had dodged the bullet, and there was some sense that the worst-case scenario did not happen.
Remember, there were really two storms that hit, the initial hurricane and then the flooding that came after it. What we know now is that the worst-case scenario really did hit New Orleans, that the levees were breached. What the President was referring to was the sense that after the storm had initially passed, that there was a sense that that worst-case scenario had not happened.
We learned the next day, all of us learned that, in fact, the levees had been breached and that there was a systemic failure in the levees. That was what was certain that next morning. And that's what the President was referring to, and some have taken it out of context to suggest to you it was referring to any predictions before the hurricane hit.
We knew that this was a dangerous storm. That's why the President was actively engaged in making sure that we were taking steps to prepare for it. That's why he issued emergency declarations ahead of the storm, so that supplies could be pre-positioned and emergency teams could be -- response teams could be pre-positioned in the region and act once that storm had passed. That's why the President called Governor Blanco and urged her to do a mandatory evacuation of New Orleans. That's why the President, on August 28th, went to the airwaves and publicly urged people in the Gulf Coast region to take this storm seriously, to get out of the way, to listen to the state and local authorities and follow their advice. He talked about how this is a dangerous and potentially devastating storm.
Q When he says on Thursday, "no one could have anticipated," he's talking about this period of time after the storm had hit?
MR. McCLELLAN: After the hurricane had passed. That's right. And there was -- remember, there were a number of media reports -- I can go back and cite those for you -- that evening, Monday evening, and even some later, saying that New Orleans had "dodged a bullet," that the worst-case scenario did not happen.
Now, we knew that there was flooding going on, on that Monday, and that's why our priority was focused on saving lives. And our Coast Guard teams and others did a tremendous job in saving lives. The Coast Guard saved some 33,000 lives, and they were doing heroic work.
But let me step back and remind people what the President has said. Despite all the efforts that went on, there was a breakdown at all levels of government. The President was not satisfied with the response at the federal level. That's why he undertook, directed his Homeland Security Advisor to do a comprehensive lessons learned review of the response efforts. And that review covered some 17 specific areas and provided some 125 recommendations for us to move forward. A number of them we're already acting on. Some of them are longer-term, some of them are ones that we can do before the next hurricane season.
And so the President is focused on making sure that we are applying those lessons learned to future natural disasters, or even terrorist attacks. There is much we can learn from this and our obligation to the American people is to do a better job next time, and that's what we are committed to doing.
Q There's been a lot of attention on that particular quote in all the months since Katrina. Is this a case where the President just wasn't as clear as he should have been? Because when people ask him about that, they're not really asking him to --
MR. McCLELLAN: Asking about?
Q Asking him about the situation that day -- they weren't asking him to replay what he'd read in the media, they're asking him to draw on his knowledge from his briefings and so forth. And by saying that no one could have anticipated the breach of the levees, it suggested that he had a much more broad interpretation of that.
MR. McCLELLAN: I disagree. In fact, right at that time the made it clear what he was referring to and I made it clear what he was referring to. Yet, some reports continue to ignore what we had previously said about it and what he was referring to. So I think you have to look at what he was referring to. And he was very clear, when asked what he was referring to, when he made those comments, as was I.
Q What assurances has President Bush asked for that the levees are being rebuilt in a manner in which they will be no weaker, that there are no substandard materials being used and that to meet the date of June 1st to get the original levee force back? What assurances has he asked for or gotten out of --
MR. McCLELLAN: Well, a couple of things. One, the President put forward a plan to restore the levee system, the federal levee system to its previous level of protection and then to build that levee system stronger and better than before. And, remember, at the end of last year our federal coordinator, Don Powell, participated in a press briefing in this room on the plan that we were pursuing and the approach we are pursuing.
We've worked with Congress to provide $1.6 billion to the Army Corps of Engineers. And what that will allow the Army Corps of Engineers to do is, before next hurricane season, they will restore the existing federal levee system to its previous condition, including rebuilding and raising the levees and flood walls to their design height, and correcting design and construction flaws that were previously within that system.
And -- hang on, hang on. And the Army Corps of Engineers has assured us they are on schedule to complete that work before the next hurricane season. And my understanding is that the Corps of Engineers is using modern design and construction methods which have greatly improved over the last forty years, which is the time when those levees were originally built.
Now with that said, the President is also participating in a briefing this afternoon on the recovery and rebuilding efforts relating to Katrina, and his Secretary of Homeland Security, Mike Chertoff, will be present. This is here shortly. And then his Federal Coordinator, Don Powell, will be there; Lieutenant General Strock of the Army Corps of Engineers will be present, as well. And following that briefing, General Strock is going to go to the stakeout, so he might be able to answer some specific questions for you all about where they are and what they are using to rebuild those levees to their previous level of protection.
Q The report this morning that challenges the idea that it's being done well is something you dispute --
MR. McCLELLAN: Well, the Army Corps of Engineers strongly disputed that, and you're going to hear from General Strock here shortly, and he'll be able to talk to you more about it.
The other aspect of this is when I talk about protecting the New Orleans area against a Katrina-like storm. The President is committed to providing federal resources to build the federal levee system stronger and better than before. And so we've been working with Congress to allocate an additional $1.5 billion for additional safety and security measures in order to protect against some sort of large-scale catastrophic event like a Katrina. And that will provide citizens in the greater New Orleans area with the confidence they need to go and rebuild their homes and rebuild their businesses and invest -- or pursue new investment opportunities and new economic opportunities -- those additional protections. And this is work that will be completed over a course of a two to three year period.
And the additional protections included accelerating the completion of previously authorized levee projects, armoring levees to improve reliability, closing the three interior canals, installing state-of-the-art pump stations at the lakefront, and raising the existing non-federal levees to federal design standards. And then there is also some $4.6 million that has been provided to do a long-term look at additional options that may be needed to strengthen the levee system even more, beyond that.
Q Back on the line-item veto, if this power is so important for the President, why did it take five years for him to bring it forward? And is there something --
MR. McCLELLAN: -- in previous budgets, yes.
Q -- I'm sorry -- is there something to say that this is an attempt to deflect criticism of the President for the surge in federal spending on his watch?
MR. McCLELLAN: Well, let's talk about where we are in terms of federal spending. And, first, let me just point out to you that he has proposed this in previous budgets. He's proposed budget reforms within previous budgets and called on Congress to act on this. I think that in the current environment there is a greater willingness within Congress on a bipartisan basis to act and get something done on this important priority.
The President is serious about controlling wasteful spending, and we think Congress shares -- the congressional leaders share that commitment. And it is time to build upon the steps we've already taken to rein in wasteful spending, or to reduce federal spending in a number of areas.
Let me remind you that in last year's budget, the Congress passed 89 of the President's 154 proposals for eliminating or major reductions in programs, for a total savings of some $6.5 billion. They also delivered on reforms when it comes to mandatory spending. That was the first time that's been done since the latter part of the '90s -- by passing some $40 billion in savings. And as I pointed out in the beginning, they passed a budget that held overall discretionary spending growth below the rate of inflation, and non-security discretionary spending was actually cut.
So if you look at where we were in terms of non-security discretionary spending when the President came into office, we have significantly reduced the growth in that, and even cut it in the last budget. So we're changing the path that we're on when it comes to spending.
Now, we also need to act on entitlement reform, and the President has put forward proposals to reduce the growth of those mandatory entitlement programs. And he put forward the idea in his State of the Union for an entitlement reform commission that would be bipartisan, that would include members of Congress and that would look at this longer-term issue, because that's the issue that we really need to act on to address the longer-term spending problems.
But the President's plan has us on path to cut the deficit in half by 2009, and we're going to continue working with Congress to make sure that we meet that objective. It's important, to keep our economy growing, that we act to exercise spending restraint here in Washington, D.C. And we have under this President, and we need to continue to build upon that.
Q The President's budget, when it came to spending on advanced defense technology -- the fighters and -- is a lot richer than people had expected. Back in the spring when they were doing -- preparing for the quadrennial defense review, it was thought that one or two of the advanced fighter programs would be eliminated or cut back, and defense stocks plummeted. And then in October we began to hear that maybe the cuts wouldn't be so drastic. I'm wondering why the administration decided to fund these programs where we had a tight budget, when experts say we don't need these advanced fighter --
MR. McCLELLAN: I think that goes to the other issue that Matt was bringing up, and that is we are a nation at war. We're going to make sure that our troops have the resources they need to win the war on terrorism. And then we've got to look at exercising spending restraint elsewhere in the budget.
Now with that said, the military is also going through a transformation, led by Secretary Rumsfeld and commanders at the Pentagon. And they have outlined the priorities in the budget. They've testified to that. I couldn't give you the specific one that you're referring to right now, but we're committed to making sure that our troops have all the resources they need to win the war on terrorism and to transforming our military to better confront the threats we face in the 21st century. And that's why they just went through the quadrennial defense review, as well, to look at these issues.
And so it all fits to within those larger priorities that we're working to meet.
Q -- like F-22 fighter, where there's no other country in the world that has a plane that comes near that. Al Qaeda doesn't even have planes.
MR. McCLELLAN: We can take a look at these specific issues. I don't have that in front of me, but I think the Defense Department has briefed on those specific matters and talked about what our proposals are, and I'll be glad to look at that specific one and talk to you about it.
Go ahead, Wendell.
Q Can you explain, Scott, how the President's new line-item veto proposal legislation gets around the Supreme Court ruling eight years ago that he has the authority either to accept or reject the laws Congress has passed, but nothing else? Can you do that in layman's terms?
MR. McCLELLAN: Sure. In layman's terms, the difference is that this will give Congress a final up or down vote. It will guarantee that Congress has an up or down vote. The President will look at spending bills, and he will be able to eliminate or reduce spending in those bills, and then package that together, send it back to Congress, and within 10 days Congress must act with an up or down vote on that package.
Q Also, if I could ask --
MR. McCLELLAN: And the previous Act did not provide for that.
Q There's been a lot of criticism of Congress, in terms of restraining the growth of federal spending. But the President has yet to veto any spending bill. Why is that the case?
MR. McCLELLAN: Well, it's a good question. I think the President has talked about it previously under the way things currently are structured. I think it's difficult to do that when Congress acts to meet the level the President has called for in the budget. And Congress has acted to fund the priorities that the President has called for, and then to exercise spending restraint elsewhere in the budget. I talked about how the way we have reduced the growth in non-security discretionary spending, and how we reduced the growth in overall discretionary spending since coming into office.
We've also acted on mandatory spending -- savings. We need to look at broader reform of those entitlement programs, and the President has called for that. But when Congress meets the level of funding that the President has called for, it's difficult for a President under the current situation to go in there and then say, I'm not going to accept this. But if we had --
Q Even though he doesn't agree with what the Congress decided to spend the money on?
MR. McCLELLAN: Well, that's what the whole issue of earmark reforms is about, special interest reform. That's why I said, we need to shine the spotlight on some of this most questionable spending that goes on here in Washington, D.C. There are some that try to slip by in the middle of the night special interest earmark legislation. And this will provide the President with the ability to strike that unnecessary spending from the legislation and then send it back to Congress, where they will have a final say, up or down vote, whether or not to move forward on it. And that will mean that the scrutiny will be even greater than before. It will be debated publicly. The American people will get to see it, and we believe it will provide strong accountability for elected leaders here in Washington, D.C.
Q If I could try one more, the President didn't feel that he could get that debate, that scrutiny, that focus on what Congress wanted to spend the money on simply by saying, I veto the bill because of that?
MR. McCLELLAN: Well, it's up to Congress to decide how to appropriate specific money, but the President sets out his budget and his priorities, and where he would eliminate wasteful spending. And he's done that, and Congress has acted on it. But because the President doesn't have the line-item veto authority right now, he's not able to go in there and strip out specific, special interest legislation, or earmarks by members of Congress. The President believes very strongly that he should have that authority. That's why we have called for it previously, and now we're sending up a specific piece of legislation that would provide him that authority and bring accountability to Washington on this type of questionable spending that goes on here.
Q Scott, on the port deal, you were telling us this morning the administration wants to work with Congress to reform and improve the CFIUS process. You say that's something that we're committed to doing. But some in Congress want to see that reform happen immediately -- applied to this current deal with Dubai Ports World. Is the administration willing to scrap the process immediately, the process as it exists now, and start over --
MR. McCLELLAN: Well, I think the President --
Q -- and start over from scratch on the Dubai Ports Deal?
MR. McCLELLAN: I think the President spelled out our views on this particular transaction that you're mentioning, and he's made those views very clear. Now, the company has submitted a new transaction to the Committee on Foreign Investment. It is going through that process. I fully expect it to include a 45-day investigation, as well.
As the committee has pointed out, they thoroughly looked at this transaction previously. There were safeguards put in place. There were additional security assurances provided in an agreement with the Department of Homeland Security during that review process. And the President has spelled out the reasons why he believes that transaction should go forward. But we also recognize that members of Congress would like additional information, and would like to learn more about the facts regarding this particular transaction. And that's why members of the administration have been reaching out to members of Congress to provide them additional information.
We have also expressed our support for looking at improvements or reforms within the Committee on Foreign Investment process. And we want to continue reaching out to Congress and working with them to move forward on improvements for the process. And that's what we are committed to doing.
Q So improvements will come in the future, not --
MR. McCLELLAN: Well, there are a number of congressional leaders that have expressed support for the approach that is being taken now by the company. The company requested an additional 45-day review. They had been in discussions with congressional leaders. This was an agreement they worked out with those congressional leaders. We were very much involved in those discussions, and we believe that it was a good middle ground. And we're confident that at the end of this review process that more members will be comfortable with this transaction moving forward.
Remember we've talked how the United Arab Emirates is a strong partner in the global war on terrorism, and we have to look at this in that context, as well. We should be working to strengthen and expand our partnerships in order to win the war on terrorism. It's critical that we address the threats we face in a global way. It is a global threat, and we need partners to confront that threat. And they've been a good ally.
As General Pace has repeatedly pointed out, the military -- the military cooperation, in his words, is superb. And General Franks has talked about it, as well. I think General Pace, the Chairman of our Joint Chiefs of Staff said that the United Arab Emirates is a very, very solid partner in the war on terrorism. They've proven to be a very solid partner in the war on terrorism.
Q So the President stands by his threat to veto any congressional --
MR. McCLELLAN: Well, the President's position remains unchanged. What we're doing is working to make sure Congress has additional information so that they will feel more comfortable with the transaction moving forward.
Q When did the President last ask for this line-item veto authority?
MR. McCLELLAN: I think it's been in each of our budgets for the last few years. I'll have to -- I'll double check that for you.
Q Has he ever offered a specific legislative proposal before?
MR. McCLELLAN: Let me double check that. I'm not sure that we've sent up a specific legislative proposal like this one, but we have proposed a specific approach -- or we have proposed the line-item veto in our budgets as part of broader budget reforms that we have outlined.
Q What about the entitlement reform --
MR. McCLELLAN: We'll double check that for you, and get you that information.
Q -- where does that stand in negotiations with Congress on that? Is that something --
MR. McCLELLAN: We continue to discuss it with congressional leaders. We want to make sure that we move forward in a bipartisan way. Again, when it comes to reducing wasteful spending, we believe that this is an area where we can work together in a bipartisan way to get something done for the American people. The President has talked about a number of areas where we can work together and build upon the progress we've made over the last few years to extend peace and expand prosperity. And this is one area where he believes there's good bipartisan support -- and the line-item veto and entitlement reform.
And that's why he called for Congress -- or called for creating an entitlement reform commission made up of bipartisan members, as well as people from the outside so they can look at the long-term challenges facing our entitlement programs and act to address those.
Go ahead, April.
Q Scott, what is the status of the Justice Department's investigation into Hurricane Katrina?
MR. McCLELLAN: Investigation? I'm not sure what you're specifically referring to.
Q A FEMA official told me that they are not finished yet --
MR. McCLELLAN: I'm not sure specifically what you're referring to. I'll be glad to take a look into it.
Q That they're looking into prior -- well, prior -- prior -- city government officials handling of some issues there, as well as the current government officials --
MR. McCLELLAN: If there are questions relating to issues that they're looking into, you need to direct them to the Department of Justice. It wouldn't be appropriate for me to discuss them anyway.
Q So you don't know anything about what the Justice Department is doing?
MR. McCLELLAN: If there are any legal matters that they are pursuing, those are Justice Department matters, and you should direct those questions to the Justice Department.
Q All right. And another thing, have you found out, or had any strong leads as to who leaked this Katrina tape, this recent tape of the President?
MR. McCLELLAN: What are you talking about?
Q Do you know who --
MR. McCLELLAN: I think it's been public for a while. Which tape are you referring to?
Q The one from AP. The one that AP --
MR. McCLELLAN: Well, let me point -- let me go back to -- I talked to -- what we gave you earlier today about this. I think what you're referring to is an August 28th transcript; this is the day before the storm hit the Gulf Coast region. Remember, though, that this hurricane was out in the Gulf Coast well before that and out even further. It had hit the Florida area previously. And then the second time it made landfall was when it hit the New Orleans, Mississippi, Alabama area. And the President was participating in multiple calls, conversations and briefings over the course of the days leading up to the hurricane and even after the hurricane hit the Gulf Coast region.
Now, some have twisted the facts to fit a story line. I'm referring specifically to this August 28th video conference. This video conference was the daily briefing, the daily hurricane briefing that was conducted by our federal authorities and state and local authorities. There were numerous people participating in that and it was a daily briefing that was going on.
The President, on that day ahead of the storm, thought it was important to join in at the beginning of that briefing and help boost the spirits of the state and local and federal authorities that were working 24/7 to prepare for the hurricane making landfall again, and those that had already been dealing with the hurricane when it had previously hit the Florida area. And so that's the purpose of the President jumping on that call. It was to really lift there spirits ahead of the storm hitting and let them know that they were working hard, and he appreciated it and thanked them, and also to let them know how seriously he took this storm.
Remember, right after that -- and he was just on at the early part of that particular briefing. I think there is an update from Max Mayfield from the Hurricane Center about the storm; there is a hydrologist report, I believe, after that; and then Mike Brown introduced the President to say a few words, and the President said a few words. But the President was scheduled to hold a press availability or press conference a short time after that, and so he dropped off the briefing. He was not there to participate in the full briefing. He was there for that purpose, to lift their spirits.
And he went out at the press conference and talked about how this is a dangerous storm. And he called upon the people in the Gulf Coast region to listen closely to their state and local authorities and to follow their advice. He specifically was saying: If you're in the way of this storm, get out of the way of it. And he said: Listen to what the state and local authorities tell you.
But he had been receiving updates from Mr. Brown; he had been receiving updates from Joe Hagin, our Deputy Chief of Staff, who was right there with him and in close contact with other officials. He was having a number of conversations and briefings. This one was aimed at one purpose, and that was really to lift the spirits of those who had been working hard to prepare for Hurricane Katrina hitting the New Orleans, Mississippi, Alabama area.
Q So, Scott, what you're saying, some still say that this video conference tape supports what Michael Brown was saying and that makes the White House again look bad as it relates to Katrina. What is the White House doing to find who leaked the video conference tape?
MR. McCLELLAN: Remember, the President had spoken with Mr. Brown, other officials had spoken with him, as well, and there were assurances given that they had what they needed before the hurricane was hitting landfall. The President specifically asked, do you have what --
Q The issue is the --
MR. McCLELLAN: Hang on -- do you have what you need. And the one request that I recall Mike Brown making of the President was that: We need you to talk to Governor Blanco and urge her to do a mandatory evacuation of that New Orleans area. And he did. He followed through on that and did that, that morning, prior to that briefing that he jumped on for a few minutes.
Q But the issue is someone leaked on the White House, someone put that tape out there --
MR. McCLELLAN: No, no, no. Let me back up. Maybe I didn't come to that. This has all been part of the public record for some time. That August 28th meeting was covered by the press. I think it was in Baton Rouge, where the press corps was sitting in on the briefing and they covered this. This was not a new transcript in that sense. Information was provided to congressional committees, as well.
Unfortunately, some twisted the facts to fit a story line and did not look at the overall efforts that were going on. But everything was done very publicly. You all were provided updates by the White House, by myself, by my deputy even before that, in terms of what the President was doing and how seriously we were taking the storm. This was a very public record for everybody to look at.
Q Scott, while you were gone the Internet reported the President's statement to Bill Sammon: "I find it interesting that the old way of gathering news is slowly but surely" being - "losing market share. It is interesting to watch those media conglomerates try to deal with the realities of a new kind of world." And my question first: Considering this presidential statement, when can we expect that what he termed the old and market-losing media will have their reserved seats in the two front rows of this press room reassigned to the new media?
MR. McCLELLAN: Boy, that's one I don't really want to open up right now. (Laughter.) I don't get into book promotions -- obviously, you do. But I do look forward to reading that one.
Q Did the President watch any of the Academy Awards for prostitution and sodomy last night?
MR. McCLELLAN: I'm not aware that he caught any of it. I don't know -- I don't know what you're referring to, either. Les, I'm going to move on. I just don't --
Q No, no, just one other --
MR. McCLELLAN: Les, no. I think we'll stop it at that.
Q He had four.
MR. McCLELLAN: Yes, but --
Q Human events --
MR. McCLELLAN: I'm not going to dignify any more with a response.
Q Can I ask about Iraq and troop levels. The President has talked about 2006 being a year of transition. We've seen a lot of sectarian violence in recent days. Do you expect that the President will ask anything different of his commanders in terms of their assessments on this? Do you see it changing that transition period in any way?
MR. McCLELLAN: Well, he's always looking to our commanders to make those determinations. The President has made it very clear that when it comes to troop levels, that will be determined by our commanders on the ground, who will make decisions based on conditions on the ground. General Pace reiterated that just yesterday in an interview he had on television, and nothing has changed in terms of that.
Now there is important progress that's being made in terms of training and equipping the Iraqi security forces. Our commanders have talked about that over the last few days. General Casey has spoken about it; General Pace has talked about it, and talked about how they're in many ways performing very well. And that continues to make a lot of progress. I know there are still some areas that need to be addressed. They talked about some of the concerns when it comes to militias, and they've talked about how they're focusing more and more efforts on the training of police forces, as well.
But you have more and more Iraqi forces taking the lead, controlling territory, and the coalition forces, which include American forces, are providing more of a support role. And the Department of Defense has already announced some reduction that is going on in the troop levels. But we expect our commanders will continue to assess situations on the ground and make recommendations based on those conditions.
Q Might those draw downs be delayed because of what we're seeing in terms of additional violence?
MR. McCLELLAN: It's up to the commanders on the ground in terms of what they need. We're going to make sure they have the resources and troops they need to succeed in Iraq. The President has outlined a very specific strategy for succeeding.
Now you see the Iraqi government moving forward. They're going to be meeting this Sunday. That's an important step in the formation of a government that we hope will be one of national unity. And we've encouraged that. So they are moving forward on the political process. And that also helps when it comes to addressing the security conditions, as well.
And so we have a very clear three-track strategy for succeeding in Iraq. And we're going to continue to stay focused on that strategy.
Q Has the President heard from any commanders here that they should put off that draw down --
MR. McCLELLAN: Well, he stays in contact with his commanders on a regular basis. He just had a video conference on Friday, a National Security Council meeting, where he heard from General Casey and others. And we will continue to stay in close contact as we move forward.
Q Scott, do you have a reaction to the announcement today that Bill Thomas is not going to seek reelection? And, in particular, how do you see that, losing such a strong ally on the tax --
MR. McCLELLAN: I didn't know if he had announced anything before I came out. Did it just happen?
MR. McCLELLAN: I expect that we will probably have a statement from the President, then, coming out a little bit later today. Chairman Thomas is someone we've worked very closely with to advance important priorities for the American people. And he has been a great leader. We will continue to work with him during his remaining time in Congress. We appreciate all that he's done. But I expect we'll have more to say on it in the form of a presidential statement later. I had not seen that announcement before I came out here.
Q Do you see it as a setback for the President's initiatives on reforming the tax code and Social Security?
MR. McCLELLAN: Well, there's a lot we're trying to get done this year, and a lot that the President believes we can get done this year. We have a record of accomplishment over the last four or five years, and the President wants to build upon that. That's why he outlined some very specific initiatives when it came to addressing important priorities that the American people are most concerned about -- those include making sure we continue to advance our goals in Iraq and that we succeed in Iraq and supporting our troops, to making sure that we address the root causes of high energy prices. And that's why the President has outlined an initiative that would really transform the way we power our homes and our business and our cars. And we need to move forward on advancing those cutting-edge technologies that will help us do that.
And that's why the President has outlined a Competitiveness Initiative, to keep America the most competitive and innovative economy in the world, and make sure our workers have the skills they need to fill the jobs of the 21st century. And those are a lot of areas where we can work together to get things done.
Q Can you tell us about the Gulf Coast trip the President is doing this week? In New Orleans is he going to talking about the levees, or is this --
MR. McCLELLAN: Well, we're still finalizing plans. It is to go down there and to continue to focus on the recovery and rebuilding efforts, but I won't have more for you until tomorrow probably, at the earliest.
Q Then let me ask you about something that's --
MR. McCLELLAN: He will go to New Orleans and then on to Mississippi following that.
Q Why is the President having to go to Crawford to vote in this primary? Could he not vote by absentee ballot?
MR. McCLELLAN: Well, he's done both in the past. I think in 2002 and 2004 he voted in person, and it worked out well that he would be able to vote this time in person, in Crawford, since we're going to the Gulf Coast the very next day.
Q Scott, there were recommendations in the Katrina report on volunteer efforts and coordination. Could you tell us what support the White House is going to give to the National Volunteers 211 hotline program?
MR. McCLELLAN: I'm sorry, the volunteer efforts on?
Q On the National Volunteer 211 Hotline Program. It was proposed about a year ago in legislation.
MR. McCLELLAN: I'll be glad to check on it. If someone will make sure we get information to Victoria on that.
Q Scott, the United Arab Emirates may be a valued ally in the war on terrorism, but they do not recognize Israel, and they abide by the Arab boycott of Israeli goods. Shouldn't they at least be made to recognize Israel if they're going to control --
MR. McCLELLAN: We've already addressed that question. We've expressed our views. Our views are very clear, in terms of those issues. And the State Department talked about it last week. I don't have anything to add to it.
Q Scott, on the ports deal, you said again today that the White House believes that once lawmakers have learned more about the transaction, they'll be more comfortable with it. If that's the case, why was the President so quick to issue the veto threat in the first place, if he thought concerns could be allayed?
MR. McCLELLAN: For the reasons he stated. He was asked a question specifically about if someone proposed legislation that would prohibit it from moving forward. But what we're focused on right now, Greg, is working with Congress to make sure that they have the information they need, and to make sure that they have a better understanding of the facts. That's what we're doing.
Q This weekend Iranian leaders threatened members of the IAEA to withhold oil exports. What is the White House saying about that now?
MR. McCLELLAN: Well, the issue here, I think, is about the regime and its behavior. And right now this matter is being discussed today at the board meeting of the International Atomic Energy Agency. I think the international community has expressed their concerns very clearly about Iran developing nuclear weapons under the cover of a civilian program. That's why the board at the International Atomic Energy Agency has reported the matter to the Security Council.
Now, you have continued troubling issues being raised by the Director General of the International Atomic Energy Agency. Iran -- the regime in Iran continues to make provocative statements and take provocative actions that only further isolate it from the rest of the international community. And we will talk with the board at the International Atomic Energy Agency and we will talk amongst members of the Security Council about the way forward to addressing this issue and preventing Iran from developing nuclear weapons under the cover of a civilian program.
There has been a proposal put forward for Iran to pursue civilian nuclear power. The problem is that this is an issue of trust. The regime in Iran has shown that they can't be trusted. For some two decades they hid their activities from the international community, and they have refused to comply with their safeguard obligations. And they have continued to move in the wrong direction. They have continued to refuse to come into compliance with what the board spelled out at its last meeting. And that's why it's important for the international community to continue to act to make sure that Iran does not develop a nuclear weapons capability.
Go ahead. Last one.
Q When Canadian forces took over operations in Kandahar in southern Afghanistan last week, (inaudible) staff said that NATO and American involvement in Afghanistan is, at minimum --
MR. McCLELLAN: I'm sorry, who said this?
Q The Canadian chief -- the defense staff.
MR. McCLELLAN: I'll let our military speak to our commitment in terms of specific troops within Afghanistan. We are firmly committed to helping the Afghan people build a lasting democracy. This is a newly emerging democracy. The President was pleased to travel to Afghanistan just last week. He was able to visit with President Karzai and other leaders who are strongly committed to building a peaceful and democratic future on behalf of the people of Afghanistan. And following that, the President thanked our troops at Bagram Airbase for all that they're doing to make the world a more peaceful place and to support the people of Afghanistan. And he was pleased to do that.
And we're going to continue to work with the international community to support the people of Afghanistan. And there are troops that continue to serve and sacrifice in Afghanistan in defense of freedom, and we greatly appreciate all that they are doing.
Thank you all.
END 1:10 P.M. EST