Press Briefing by Ari Fleischer - December 10
For Immediate Release
Office of the Press Secretary
December 10, 2002
Press Briefing by Ari
James S. Brady Press Briefing Room
Senator Lott's comments to Senator Thurmond
Brazil/visit of President-elect Lula
Iraq/comments about the U.S.
Small pox threat
Democrats/short-term stimulus package
President Carter comments
President's views on Islam
2:12 P.M. EST
MR. FLEISCHER: Good afternoon. Let me give you a report on the President's day. The President began this morning with an intelligence briefing. Then he was briefed by the FBI. And then, in the morning he had a meeting with the President-elect of Brazil, President-elect Lula, which was a very constructive and positive meeting from the President's point of view. The two had a very good discussion about areas of mutual interest between the United States and Brazil that focused on trade and economic relations between our two nations, and the importance of fighting hunger and poverty.
The President then departed and made a speech at the Chamber of Commerce where he focused on business strengthening America as he announced his support for a program to encourage more businesses to allow their employees to take paid time off to volunteer in their communities to bring help to those in need.
And then the President met with the Chairman of Turkey's AK party, Chairman Erdogan, to talk about regional security vis-a-vis the United States and Turkey, and a variety of issues dealing with economic conditions in Turkey and Turkey's ascension potentially into the European Union. It was a very cordial and positive meeting.
And that is the events on the President's public schedule today. I'm happy to take your questions. Ron.
Q To what extent did the President talk with his Turk counterpart about either Iraq or U.S. use of military bases in Turkey?
MR. FLEISCHER: The two did discuss the situation in Iraq. they both agreed that Iraq is a threat to peace, and the importance of Saddam Hussein disarming. They discussed the United Nations process, which is -- both recognized as a very constructive process in terms of making certain that Saddam Hussein conforms to his international obligations. We have a variety of mutual interests with Turkey as we work closely on how to address this threat.
As you know, my longstanding policy is not to get into any operational specifics. They did discuss ways that we could cooperate, and I leave it at that.
Q Ari, on the SEC, what did Mr. Donaldson have in the President's view that Harvey Pitt didn't have?
MR. FLEISCHER: Well, the President -- and I'm not going to do this as a comparison because the President doesn't make appointments on the basis of comparison. The President makes appointments on the basis of the qualities of the people that he appoints at this moment. And the President, as he said, believes that Mr. Donaldson's long experience, his record in dealing both in the private sector and in academia, makes him very qualified to be chairman of the Securities and Exchange Commission. He's widely respected by people in both parties as a man of outstanding integrity, and the President was very pleased to appoint him.
Q You would concede that you've got an agency in trouble here. I mean, the SEC is not clipping along the way I'm sure the President would like it to. So what's his biggest challenge?
MR. FLEISCHER: Well, actually, I think the Securities and Exchange Commission is performing very ably on behalf of the American people. That when you take a look at the substantive -- the actions that they've taken in terms of the record enforcement decisions they have made, the amount of disgorging or taking money back from corporate executives who were defrauding their investors, it's very positive and very encouraging. It's the signs of an agency that is doing the people's business.
Q But then why have -- you had two high-profile resignations. Do you really think the American people buy the idea that the SEC is humming along the way it's intended to?
MR. FLEISCHER: I think when people look at the track record of the Securities and Exchange Commission, they do see those results. I think a change has been made at the helm. This new leader, the President believes, is going to be able to carry out the mission of the Securities and Exchange Commission with ability and with confidence.
Q Right, the President said that.
MR. FLEISCHER: Right.
Q But what I'm asking you is, what's the biggest challenge that Mr. Donaldson, if confirmed, faces?
MR. FLEISCHER: The biggest challenge is exactly as the President has outlined it, which is to restore investor confidence. And I think that investor confidence when they see just what the Securities and Exchange Commission is doing, just what the Attorney General's office is doing, or the Department of Justice is doing, in terms of taking action against corporate wrongdoers, it does give investors more confidence.
Q Just one more on this, Air?
MR. FLEISCHER: David, go ahead, and last question.
Q Just the question about funding. The President announced more funding for the SEC. There's been some criticism in the past, recent past, from Democrats about the White House holding back on what was originally called for in the Sarbanes bill. Why a decision now to give more money?
MR. FLEISCHER: Because, of course, as the President prepares the budget for next year, the 2004 budget, there will be a series of decisions that are made as we work with Congress on various priorities and identify what is important, what steps can be taken to give the Securities and Exchange Commission the tools it needs to do its job on the enforcement front, on the -- making certain that they have the means available to carry out the investigations that they're charged with. And the President was very pleased today to announce the almost doubling of the SEC's budget.
Q You said cooperative and agreed to cooperate and so forth in terms of the talks with Turkey. Does that mean that Turkey has agreed to allow the U.S. to use Turkish soil to bomb Iraq?
MR. FLEISCHER: No, I said nothing about any outcome of that nature. It would not be in my position to describe anything --
Q Your said the meeting was very positive --
MR. FLEISCHER: It was.
Q And that's what we're asking.
MR. FLEISCHER: That's correct. But I would not say anything more concrete than that. It is not my place to report for other nations.
Q You didn't. But I'm asking you, is this what you mean?
MR. FLEISCHER: And I'm not answering the question, Helen. (Laughter.) It was a positive meeting. And I don't want you to read into that. But the fact of the matter is --
Q -- positive, and agreed to cooperate. We know why --
MR. FLEISCHER: Because I'm not giving you the specificity of what cooperation means in that context.
Q Wasn't he invited here to twist his arm?
MR. FLEISCHER: Helen, I know you have seen diplomatic relations for many years, but often countries look at issues and want to work together because they have mutual agreement about policy. Do not presume that I am indicating what Turkey may or may not do. That is for Turkey, a sovereign government, to decide. And I give you no inclination one way or another about any future decisions that Turkey may or may not make.
But certainly, the President makes very clear in his meetings the threat that he believes the world faces from Saddam Hussein. And the President also believes very strongly that the stronger the world is, the greater the chance of averting war, because Saddam Hussein will indeed react to that strength of pressure to disarm.
Q -- for 11 years they have done nothing. What is this threat?
MR. FLEISCHER: Well, except for develop weapons of mass destruction, hide them from inspectors and full the world.
Q -- many countries --
MR. FLEISCHER: Well, not every country has invaded their neighbors the way Iraq has.
Q I wanted to ask you about the new proposed regulations for pension plans. Critics are saying that this could open up the flood gates for a lot more companies to convert to plans that they say are unfair to older workers. What does the White House say about that?
MR. FLEISCHER: Well, these rules are proposed regulations that came out of the Treasury Department today, and they would apply to cash balance plans from the same rule that would apply -- in the same way the rules apply to defined contribution plans. What that means, consequently, is that a cash balance plan would generally satisfy the age discrimination rules if the pay credits to an employee's account are not less than the pay credits that would be made available if the employee was younger.
Q But, again, there are criticisms that you're going to open up the flood gates for a lot more companies to convert to these plans, which people say -- some people say are unfair to older workers; not necessarily constitute age discrimination in every case, but they're unfair. What's your position on these plans?
MR. FLEISCHER: Well, I think the reason that that's not valid is because the proposed regulations also address conversions of traditional pension plans to cash balance plans. Under these rules, the plan must be age neutral before the conversion, age neutral after the conversion, age neutral in the process of the conversion.
Q Now that you've taken on the role of an actuary, can I just ask you, basically what was the goal of the White House in releasing these proposed new regulations?
MR. FLEISCHER: I think that the rules, as they always are when it comes to matters of pensions, are complicated rules, and that's the description of the rules, as they read.
Q I understand, but what was your goal in releasing the new regulations?
MR. FLEISCHER: Again, these are the rules the Treasury Department has announced today, and just to make certain that people can have pensions and that the pension rights of individuals are protected.
Q Last Friday, Ari, I asked you about Senator Lott's comments, saying he was proud of Mississippi for supporting Strom Thurmond's 1948 racial segregationist, white supremacist presidential campaign. You ducked that question. Can you tell us now whether the President agreed with Vice President Gore that that was a racist statement?
MR. FLEISCHER: In fairness, Terry, I did not duck the question. I informed you directly that I had not heard the statement. And as always, I wanted to be certain and clear of what the statement is before I comment on something that I haven't heard of.
Q Can you tell us now whether or not --
MR. FLEISCHER: I think that from the President's point of view, Senator Lott has addressed this issue. He has apologized for this statement, and the President understands that that is the final word from Senator Lott in terms of the fact that he said something and has apologized for it.
Q Senator Lott's final word was that the policies that Strom Thurmond supported have been discarded, that they're discarded policies. He didn't say they were immoral, he didn't say they were wrong, he simply said they were discarded. Does the President believe that Senator Lott, given this most recent action and given the fact that he published a regular column in a newsletter for years of the Conservative Citizens Council, an openly white supremacist group, is the best person to lead the Republican Party in the United States Senate?
MR. FLEISCHER: Terry, I can only say that the President, as several Democrats up on Capitol Hill, have all said, Senator Lott has apologized. And I think that speaks for itself on this matter.
Q So the President thinks that this matter should be --
MR. FLEISCHER: I just think, from the President's point of view, all Americans should take great pride in the fact that we are changed society since 1948; tremendous strides and changes and improvements have been made in the way we treat fellow Americans in the terms of race and equality. And the President looks at the history of our nation as one that -- we were a nation that needed to change. The changes that were brought by the civil rights community were healthy, constructive changes that have made us a stronger and a richer and a better society. And I speak for the President.
Q And he's confident that Senator Lott, given this comment and given his history, embraces those changes sufficiently to be the Republican leader of the United States Senate?
MR. FLEISCHER: The President has confidence in him as Republican leader, unquestionably.
Q Back on Turkey, does the President think the EU is treating Turkey fairly on these accession talks?
MR. FLEISCHER: Well, this is a matter for the --
MR. FLEISCHER: This is a matter for the EU, in final form, to make its judgments. The President does believe that the European Union should give strong consideration to Turkey's accession into the EU. He thinks it's very important that the EU give consideration to a nation like Turkey, an Islamic democracy, an emerging country that certainly has made tremendous strides in terms of integration into Europe, and to an approach that is compatible with the transparency and the openness of Europe. So this is something that the President feels strongly about. He raised it at numerous meetings with European officials directly, and he has talked to Turkish officials about it, as well.
Q But Mr. Erdogan doesn't feel like he's being treated properly by the EU. Does the President agree with that?
MR. FLEISCHER: Well, I think, again, this is matter that the European Union will listen to a variety of nations on. The President differs strongly with anybody in Europe who has suggested that because of Turkey's background, Turkey would not qualify. The President does not think that that should be a disqualification. So the President has expressed this in many of the meetings that I've sat in on with European Union leaders.
Q And what sort of economic package are you putting together for Turkey?
MR. FLEISCHER: Well, as always, the United States has been a longstanding friend of Turkey. And we continue to be a good friend of Turkey. And Congress has worked with many previous White Houses, including this one, on aid for Turkey, and we will continue to work with Turkey and the Congress on the size of an appropriate package.
Q Yes, on Mr. Erdogan -- the administration has been very clear in the past few months that it is concerned about Turkey moving into that adjoining section of Iraq, should there be regime change in Iraq, and that it's very important to you to keep them out of that Kurdish territory. At the end of this meeting now, what is the American understanding about Turkey intentions there? And is there an understanding that Turkey would stay up within its --
MR. FLEISCHER: Yes, David, the meeting did not get into that level of discussion and that level of detail. What the President believes is that in the event -- and this is in the event that any military action is taken in Iraq, that it is very important -- and the United States is committed to make certain that Iraq is whole, that there is no division within Iraq.
Q And did the President make that point today again?
MR. FLEISCHER: He did.
Q He did. And what kind of response did he get?
MR. FLEISCHER: It's not my position to characterize a response of other nations.
Q Could you say whether or not Turkey and the United States are in agreement right now with Iraq under all circumstances needs to remain whole and unified?
MR. FLEISCHER: Again, I think it's not my position to characterize the response of other nations, but I will answer, broadly speaking, I think it was a very positive meeting.
Q Ari, I'm not asking you to tell us about the response, I'm asking you whether you are convinced now that you and your significant ally here are in agreement on the broad principle of a unified and whole Iraq.
MR. FLEISCHER: The only way to describe whether it was a broad agreement would be two people agreeing, and that would mean I would be commenting on one person's point of view and expressing it for a meaning. And I'm just not at liberty to go into that. I think that's a question you can ask Turkish officials, and I'm sure they'll be more than happy to inform you.
Q Is the White House worried about the situation in Venezuela? There seems to be deteriorating -- Venezuela is probably, I think, the fifth oil supply in the world, one of the main suppliers of oil to the United States. Is the White House worried about the situation there?
MR. FLEISCHER: The United States is closely monitoring the situation in Venezuela. It is an important area that the United States has a focus on. And we reiterate our complete support for the Organization of American States Secretary General Cesar Gaviria's efforts to mediate a peaceful, democratic, constitutional and electoral solution to Venezuela's crisis. We note that there have been many clear statements that have been made for the Secretary's mission in Caracas that have been issued in the past week by fellow OAS member states, and the Chairman of the OAS Permanent Council.
The President calls on all sides, all sides, to act responsibly, to act peacefully, and to continue the dialogue process, and to reject violence.
Q And I have a second question. The meeting that the President held today with President Lula, President-elect of Brazil, besides discussing Brazil, did they discuss the dire situation in Argentina, which is Brazil's neighbor and Brazil's main trading partner?
MR. FLEISCHER: They talked generally about economic conditions in South America and the need to continue to work with nations to help them as they help themselves. And that was the general tenor of those type of conversations.
Q Ari, Iraq accused the U.S. of "unprecedented blackmail" in obtaining the declaration of weapons of mass destruction. And they say, "America aims to manipulate the U.N. documents to find a cover for aggression against Iraq."
MR. FLEISCHER: That is a laughable statement. I think it follows a disturbing pattern where Iraq looks at the combined actions of the world as spoken and expressed and approved by the United Nations, and condemns them. This is Iraq returning to the pattern of dialogue that they practiced in the 1990s, which is where they met the inspectors with, in the case of inspectors physically, with obstruction. In this case, orally, their message to the United Nations is that they reject what the United Nations has done, because the process set up for the distribution of the report was a process authorized by the United Nations.
Q Any thoughts on CSX not paying any taxes in the past -- three of the past four years?
MR. FLEISCHER: The President is very confident that all the investigation that is relevant on this issue has been looked at thoroughly and fully, and that the Senate will take a look at all this as well, and that his nominee will be confirmed as all these issues are looked at.
Q But on that issue itself, on what they have done.
MR. FLEISCHER: I am not the accountant in this matter, and so I can give you the prospective of what the President views, in terms of this nominee.
Q So the President -- the White House knew about that, and decided it was not an issue?
MR. FLEISCHER: I have not been provided every piece of information that, of course, has been looked at with every nominee. As you can imagine, nominees have a considerable amount of information.
Q But it doesn't sound like it was a surprise to you.
MR. FLEISCHER: I think, again, the President knows about his nominee and is confident in his nominee.
Q On Iraq, can you tell us where we are in the evaluation process, what the administration is doing to pore over these thousands of pages from Iraq, how you're approaching this task?
MR. FLEISCHER: The United States government is carefully reading through the declaration that Iraq has sent. It is voluminous. Much of it is in Arabic, and there are a team of translators, a team of government officials are looking at the information, making their way through it very carefully. Experts who are versed in the particular areas that have been released are dedicating themselves to the area of their expertise as the report is divided up within the intelligence community.
They are just in the beginning of that process. I anticipate this is a process that is going to take some considerable period of time. And this process will be thoughtful, it will be deliberative, and it will be careful. It will be careful to make certain that we thoroughly and completely understand what it is that Iraq is purporting to declare, as well as what they have failed to declare in this rather large document.
Q So you think it will be several more days before you have any sort of judgment about the extent to which they're being genuine?
MR. FLEISCHER: I think that's a very good possibility. And I hesitate to guess how many several more days. Whatever the proper period of time is that it will take will be the proper time that it takes, because it's important to have a careful and through understanding of what Iraq is saying, and that way we can judge it in its entirety.
Q Ari, does that mean that you're not going to release any preliminary, step-by-step reaction? Is there anything --
MR. FLEISCHER: No, I really don't anticipate any step-by- step reactions to it. That's why I said that we want to take a look at this in its entirety and see what it is that has been declared by Iraq, as well as to understand what may be not included in this document.
Q On an entirely unrelated subject, your old home town is faced with a transit strike next week --
MR. FLEISCHER: Pound Ridge?
Q You know what I mean. I think of you as, you know, Bronx. Maybe that's a mistake, but that's how I think of you. You know, Bernie Williams' home town, for example.
MR. FLEISCHER: Yes. I think he lives in Northern Jersey now, but --
Q -- is faced with a transit strike, which would be illegal. Would the federal government take any role? Does the President have anything to say about the people involved in negotiating that?
MR. FLEISCHER: Yes, I have not had any information provided to me on the topic of potential action up in New York. I have personally noted the reports, but I have not heard anything from the federal government. If there is anything we have on it, I'll try to share it with you. But I have not looked into that yet.
Q Another question about the Snow nomination. Apparently during his tenure at CSX he was loaned something in excess of $24 million by the company in order to make purchases of company stock, and when the price of that stock went down instead of up, the loans were forgiven. Does that undermine his credibility as a spokesman for corporate reform? That practice, of course, would now be illegal under the Oxley-Sarbanes bill. Does the fact that he has that in his background undermine his credibility?
MR. FLEISCHER: Well, I think loans -- loans that were given at this period were perfectly within the law, were in fact a common practice among the -- in business. And I think that anything that was a common practice, that was lawful, is not, in the President's judgment, a disqualification, because over time people who are looking at these decisions, came to believe, as the President did and as the Congress did, that this practice needs to be stopped into the future. And it has been stopped into the future as a result of the legislation that the President signed.
Q Is the President aware of this?
MR. FLEISCHER: Yes.
MR. FLEISCHER: That's correct.
Q Getting back to Turkey and the EU for a moment, looking to clarify the language a little bit. The President said the U.S. -- he and the U.S. stand side by side in Turkey's effort to join the EU. Does the U.S. explicitly endorse that? Is this an official endorsement? Characterize it for us.
Q Well, given the fact that the decision is a decision to be made by the EU -- that's the reason I said the President believes that the European Union should give strong consideration to Turkey's ascension into the European Union. It's a diplomatic way of speaking. This is a decision by the EU, but the President has been very clear about where he stands as a nation that does not belong to the EU.
Q Is that tantamount to the endorsement? In other words, if this were within the purview of the U.N., if Turkey were looking for something from the U.N. --
MR. FLEISCHER: I said it the way I said it for a reason. That's the President -- how the President approaches it. That's the President's belief that it's a matter of protocol. Because it is not the United States' judgment to make in the final analysis, but the United States' thoughts and opinions.
Q Ari, the President is going to be speaking in Philadelphia on faith-based on Thursday. Does he anticipate sending up the same legislation that they've been worked out in the Senate again? Or is there some reworking of that?
MR. FLEISCHER: Well, I think you could anticipate not only on this issue, but on a broad variety of matters, a very aggressive agenda by the President on the domestic front. The President has many issues that he wants to see addressed in the new Congress. The President was appreciative to the last Congress for the many actions that we and the Congress were able to take together on behalf of the country. But there are many things that have been undone. And the President looks forward to working with the Congress on those areas.
So I think the President will have a lot to say about the domestic agenda. On Thursday, he looks forward to going to Philadelphia. As you heard the President today, as he focused on helping to make sure that we have more volunteers who are able to do good works in our society, the President still has a real abiding concern about people who may be left behind in America and what we can do together as a community involving organizations that are faith-based, the business community, as well, of course, as the government sector to bring help to those in need. So you'll keep hearing from the President on these topics.
Q Ari, earlier this week, the states and some communities turned in their smallpox recommendations, their plans, if you will, how imminent a threat is a smallpox outbreak at this point in the United States? And who would be the potential perpetrator of a threat in the opinion of the White House?
MR. FLEISCHER: I think the experts when they assess the threat, they assess the potential damage that could be done by the threat, no matter how small it may be, because of the very virulent nature of smallpox. And the fact that a disease that has been eradicated around the globe could potentially be in the hands of somebody who would want to use it as a terrorist event is an area of concern to any United States government, that a President must take a careful look at in order to protect the American people from the potential of a smallpox, no matter how remote it may be.
And so this is a very important matter for the President. It's a matter that he's approached with care and deliberation. He has, I think, properly and wisely taken time to make his determinations about whether or not to proceed with any type of smallpox inoculation program or vaccine program for the American people.
Q Do you think that he has come to a conclusion?
MR. FLEISCHER: I think when the President does come to a conclusion he'll be in a position to share it. And this is an issue that he has weighed very carefully, heard from a great many sides about because the sides involve science. And the best guess is about science and how to protect the American people, given the fact that whatever dosage of smallpox vaccine is decided upon, there is scientifically the basis for side-effects in a very small percentage of people who receive the inoculation. Very small -- nevertheless, that is the scientific advice or information that there would, indeed, be side-effects for some.
Q A short time ago the House Democrats emerged from their economic summit and said they would soon put forth a short-term stimulus package. Details haven't been worked out, but I can assure you it will not include making permanent last year's tax cuts. Is that a non-starter point for the administration at this moment?
MR. FLEISCHER: Well, one, the President wants to hear the Democrats' ideas. The President welcomes the fact that the Democrat Party, as well, wants to focus on how to help people to get more jobs and how to keep an economy that is growing, to grow faster. So the President begins the year looking for Democrats who want to work with him on common ground, so we can move the country forward.
We'll see specifically what the Democrat ideas are. I think there is division in the Democrat Party about whether or not to raise taxes on the American people. These are questions the Democrats are still trying to sort through. I think there are also issues they're trying to finesse, in terms of can they talk about them or not. The President looks forward to working with Democrats next year on these issues.
Q One is a question on taxes and whether the President is considering looking at the taxes on airlines, particularly airline passengers, which take up a significant part of the ticket price -- and airlines are now saying that that would screw the airline industry. Is that --
MR. FLEISCHER: I've heard no discussion about anything on those lines.
Q And, secondly, yesterday you talked about that it was not a disqualifying matter in terms of the Augusta Country Club. Would it make a difference if Augusta Country Club disqualified or didn't allow people on racial or ethnic basis? Would that be different for a Cabinet Secretary?
MR. FLEISCHER: Do you have something specific in mind here? No, I think that would be a very different category for the President.
Q Ari, you mentioned the faith-based issue will come up on Thursday. What other areas of the domestic agenda does the President see that were not addressed during the last session? And is he going to be discussing old initiatives, or will there be new initiatives?
MR. FLEISCHER: As I indicated, I think you're going to see by the President a very strong focus on the domestic agenda. I think it's going to cover a variety of issues that are important to people in their homes and in their lives -- including people's health care; including making certain that people have energy that they need and that America can become more energy independent; a continued focus on helping people who may be left behind in our society -- that gets to the faith-based legislation.
I think there are also issues that deal with people's values, such as a ban on cloning, which was an important piece of business that has been left undone that the President would like to return to. I think Medicare, when you talk about making certain that Medicare can be strengthened, modernized and the seniors can have prescription drugs. And certainly welfare reform is an issue that was left unfinished in the last Congress that the President would like to return to. And, finally, the area of pension protections.
I think when you sum up many of these domestic issues, what the President wants to do is, in addition to protecting the homeland and our national security, the President wants to make certain that we have more opportunity and economic opportunity for more Americans.
Q Is he going to come up with a different drug plan, or is he going to stick with what he's proposed thus far?
MR. FLEISCHER: I'm not going to get into specifics about something the President might want to indicate later.
Q Ari, former President Carter in his acceptance speech of the Nobel Peace Award today used the occasion to call on Iraq to disarm, to comply with U.N. resolutions. But he also suggested the United States needs to be ready to take "yes" for an answer, and not only as far as Saddam concerned, but also lifting the sanctions. Does the President have a response to the former President's remarks? Did he see them? Was he briefed on them in any way?
MR. FLEISCHER: I think there is nothing the President would rather than do than know that "yes" would be an accurate answer that the world could take. That's what he's waiting for. The President wants to make certain that Saddam Hussein has disarmed. And this is why this is, as the President said, Saddam Hussein's chance to prove to the world that he will, this time, disarm.
Q Did the President tune into the former President's remarks? Was he briefed on them in any way? Did he have any further response?
MR. FLEISCHER: I don't know off the top of my head.
Q Ari, what exactly happened in the United Nations regarding the release of these documents? Syria is very upset. Was somebody stabbed in the back here?
MR. FLEISCHER: No, I think the United Nations set up a process that was very transparent and the United Nations officials talked about it. There was a statement issued by the Secretary General of the United Nations, walking through the process of how to disseminate the documents.
Q As far as democratic tax cut ideas, is the welcome mat also extended to a tax holiday?
MR. FLEISCHER: You've asked me this before, there's really no change in my answer from this two days ago. Again, the President wants to work with members of Congress and focus on people's ideas. And I'm not going to get into every level of specifics about what the President may or may not do. The issue with the payroll taxes, of course, is the solvency of the Social Security trust fund depends on the payroll taxes going into the system.
Q But there was an argument being made that rather than make the tax cut permanent -- which, as you know, would take effect many years from now -- the money could better be spent on payroll tax cut.
MR. FLEISCHER: Make no mistake, opposing the tax cut, which is now law of the land, opposing making the tax cut permanent means very simple things to the American people. Those who oppose making the tax cut permanent favor reimposing a marriage penalty on people. They favor taking away people's $1,000 child tax credits. They favor reimposing the death tax on people. And they favor creating higher rates on the American people than the American people have been told that they will be able to rely on and count on.
So this language that some people want to use to hide their tax hike fever is nothing other than an excuse for the fact that they don't want to face up to the fact that the consequences of that policy would be reimposition of the marriage penalty, would be taking away people's $1,000 child credits, and making people pay higher rates than they were promised.
Q Back on Turkey, can you describe what effort the President has made in recent days to talk to EU leaders about Turkey's possible entry? And you'd said you'd sat in on some meetings where that was raised. Could you describe that in a little more detail?
MR. FLEISCHER: Well, certainly, at the NATO summit, as you know, the President had a series of one-on-one meetings with European leaders, and in many of these meetings the President raised those issues directly with those leaders face to face.
Q -- and can you describe in a little more detail exactly how he presented his point of view?
MR. FLEISCHER: Well, off the top of my head, I don't remember each of the summits that the President had, but he had several. And it came up, as I recall, in virtually all of those meetings with the European leaders. And it's something that Secretary Powell has been working the phones about, as well. And it's something I just don't recall off the top of my head what other calls the President has made in the last couple weeks. But suffice it to say the President is personally involved, because the President thinks it is important that the European Union give consideration to Turkey's accession.
Q But has he made any kind of offer to the Europeans, or a threat? How has he presented the U.S. position to Turkey's accession?
MR. FLEISCHER: On the basis of logic and diplomacy. I mean, it's the same spirit in which, for example, NATO was expanded -- because it was good for Europe, it was good for NATO and it was good for the nations that were expanded into NATO. Similar with Turkey, the President believes that when you look at the merits, when you look at the criteria, when you look at the judgments of the evaluations that are made in terms of whether or not a nation is ready for membership in the EU, the President's judgment is that the EU should give serious consideration to Turkey.
Q Ari, I wanted to revisit the issue in terms of how the President views Islam. I know you've taken a number of questions on that, and the President has made several statements. Beyond the statements that you and the President have made, I'm wondering if you can tell us on what basis does the President believe that, in fact, Islam is peaceful? How has he arrived at that conclusion?
MR. FLEISCHER: I think the burden is on those who would challenge the President's assertion to make the claim about why because of the actions of individuals -- anybody can tar a good faith. I turn that quite around. I don't think the President has any obligation to justify why Islam is a religion of peace. He says because he believes it, it is. A billion people practice Islam around the world. And I think anybody who would suggest that burden is on the President needs to explain why people can apply the actions of individuals to an entire faith. After all, what faith is safe if the actions of the individuals don't tar every faith.
Q There are a number of Jewish and Christian not only scholars, but other religious leaders who do cite passages that they deem as troubling in the Koran, for example, that would seem to incite Muslim violence --
MR. FLEISCHER: I think there's no --
Q -- against non-Muslims. Is the President aware of those passages?
MR. FLEISCHER: You can -- I think you can read virtually every text in every faith and find something in there, a sentence or two that could be twisted into an interpretation that there somehow is something in someone's faith that doesn't preach peace. And that is not the President's approach. And he's very, very proud of it, because that's the spirit of our country. That's why we are such a strong and great country -- we're a tolerant and open country.
Q Can I follow up on that, Ari?
MR. FLEISCHER: Go ahead.
Q On Mr. Lula visiting the President -- he said after the meeting that these two have difference on the free trade area of the Americas. And you said they talked about general economics. Can you be more specific? What were the discussion about a free trade area of the Americas? And did the President present any plan to resolve the difference with Brazil, especially on the agricultural sector?
MR. FLEISCHER: No, I think it's important to remember that the President met with President-elect Lula. He is not the president. He has not yet appointed members of his Cabinet. And necessarily, the conversation was rather broad. They have not focused on individual specific trade acts or trade initiatives. But the President was encouraged to hear the message that President Lula offered concerning trade and the importance of trade to economic development, broadly speaking.
Q Mr. Fleischer, did the President discuss today with the Turkish leader, Mr. Erdogan, the Cyprus issue, since this is related with the EU issue?
MR. FLEISCHER: No, that topic did not come up.
Q Follow on Islam, just for a moment. Has the President broken with his friends, Franklin Graham and Pat Robertson because of this situation? Has he spoken to them directly?
MR. FLEISCHER: Connie, I can only describe to you what the President feels in his heart and what he speaks and what he is proud to say. I don't say it in reference to what anybody else may or may not say. My job is to characterize to you accurately, and I hope with a little feeling today, about what the President thinks, because I think it's really important that you understand the depth to which the President, as a man of faith himself, believes in what he says when he talks about Islam being a religion of peace.
Q Okay, Ari, given the rise in unemployment figures and the general skittishness about the economy, would the President like to see Congress revisit an extension of unemployment insurance?
MR. FLEISCHER: That is a topic that the President has never ruled out. The President was disappointed, of course, that Congress was unable to get an agreement on unemployment insurance in the last days of the Congress this year. Particularly given the fact that the unemployment extension will go through December -- approximately 28th, the President was particularly disappointed that Congress didn't get the job done. Nevertheless, as I indicated, we're looking forward to a topic the President has not ruled out.
Q Thank you.
END 2:49 P.M. EST