Press Briefing by Ari Fleischer January 23, 2003
Office of the Press Secretary
January 23, 2003
Briefing by Ari Fleischer
James S. Brady Press Briefing Room
Phone Call with President Putin
American public opinion
Thacker comments/gay plague
Secretary Rumsfeld remarks on Europe
Libya/Human Rights Commission
Homeland security/Governor Ridge
Medical malpractice limits
State of the Union address
1:00 P.M. EST
MR. FLEISCHER: Good afternoon. I would like to walk through today's schedule for the President, and then two domestic announcements, two foreign policy-related announcements.
The President began today with an intelligence briefing, followed by his FBI briefing. He is having lunch with the Vice President for their weekly lunch. Then later this afternoon, the President will receive a briefing from a recent U.S. delegation that traveled to Afghanistan to work with the people of Afghanistan, the government of Afghanistan on improving the humanitarian conditions in Afghanistan.
And some announcements for you today: The President's pledge, if you recall, during this whole focus on fighting corporate corruption, about what's good for the top floor is good for the shop floor is now a reality. The Department of Labor today is releasing its final rules on giving workers a 30-day advance notice of any blackout periods which deny workers the right to make changes typically in their retirement plans. This is a provision that had been found to be abused as a result of people on the top floor of corporations not being covered by such a blackout period, while period on the bottom floor were not able to make changes. Those days are over. The Department of Labor today followed up on the President's commitment and has issued the following rules on that. Secretary Chao has done that today in Washington.
From Atlanta, Georgia, today, Agriculture Secretary Veneman will announce that President Bush is going to propose a record level of funding to strengthen the United States Department of Agriculture's meat and poultry food safety protection system. The USDA food safety budget will increase to $797 million, an increase of $42 million over last years request. And that represents a 20-percent increase in food safety programs since fiscal year 2000.
On foreign policy, the President this morning spoke with President Putin of Russia. It was a very useful and productive session. The two leaders reviewed Russian-American cooperation on Iraq; they discussed North Korea, as well, and agreed to remain in close touch on these issues in the period ahead.
And finally, the President would like to thank the people and the government of Australia for their efforts in working to achieve peace through the military force that Australia has dispatched to Iraq. The President continues to hope that this matter can be resolved peacefully, but thanks to the efforts of nations like Australia, the signal that is being sent that the world is serious helps enhance the chances for peace.
And with that, I'm happy to take your questions.
Q In that phone call, Ari, Russian President Putin, according to Russian sources, said that the January 27th report holds the key to the future, the implication being that if the UNMOVIC folks say that they're receiving some cooperation from Iraq, we need more time for inspections, that would be a position that Russia would support. It seems to be at odds with the position that you're putting out --
MR. FLEISCHER: I think it's important -- we all agree that it's an important date. And the President and President Putin both look forward to seeing what the report says when it goes up to the United Nations next week. We will await further judgment until that takes place. And as the two discussed today, of course, we will continue to consult prior to the report's arrival and following the report's arrival.
Q Would you seek a second resolution at the United Nations authorizing force?
MR. FLEISCHER: I think it's not clear at this time. It's premature to make any judgments about it. It is a possibility. The President has said repeatedly that he thinks it's very important to work in close concert with our allies. The President thinks it's very important for Iraq to receive as unambiguous a signal as possible that the world means business, and therefore Saddam Hussein will have the greatest incentives to do what he is obligated to do, which is to disarm.
But the President has also made it clear that if Saddam Hussein does not disarm that the President will lead a coalition of the willing. So we -- from the President's point of view, it's preferable to work in concert with the allies to the greatest degree possible. And the United Nations Security Council is one very effective avenue to do so. There are other effective avenues, as well.
Q So I would assume that that means that if it looked like you were going to draw a veto from France, you wouldn't go that route?
MR. FLEISCHER: Well, again, we'll let events take place and see how discussions go. I'm not going to presume the final outcomes.
Q A member of the administration's AIDS Advisory Council has called AIDS "a gay plague." Does the President condone that kind of language?
MR. FLEISCHER: No, the President does not share that view; the President has a totally opposite view. That remark is far removed from what the President believes and for the President has -- stand for. The President, in terms of what he has done for the issue of AIDS, has brought a real focus to increasing funds, both domestic and foreign policy, to help people with AIDS, the President's view is totally the opposite of that. The President's view is people with AIDS need to be treated with care, compassion, and that's why his budget has provided so much money to help in the fight against AIDS.
Q What qualifications did Jerry Thatcher have for the job, to be on this council, and why is he still on it?
MR. FLEISCHER: Well, number one, he is not on it. Number two, this is -- the question of who would get appointed to it is not a presidential appointment, it's an appointment that comes at the Cabinet level. And, as a point of fact, no one has been appointed to date.
Q He is the selection of the Bush administration to date. What were his qualifications to get that Bush administration endorsement? And why is he still the administration's choice to be on that panel?
MR. FLEISCHER: I think you -- I'm not indicating to you -- as you know, I don't speculate about personnel. I'm not indicating to you whether he will or will not be appointed to that panel. What I am indicating to you is that the views that he holds are far, far removed from what the President believes.
Q You said earlier today that the President doesn't care whether the American people support any decision to go to war or not.
MR. FLEISCHER: I didn't say that.
Q Basically you said it.
MR. FLEISCHER: No, it's a --
Q Okay, what did you say?
MR. FLEISCHER: It's a wily paraphrase, Helen, wily.
Q I think I compressed it well. (Laughter.)
MR. FLEISCHER: I know you do. That's why you asked it the way you did. (Laughter.)
The President believes the following: that his job as Commander-in-Chief is to, first and foremost, protect the country from any threats that he perceives the American people may suffer. In carrying out that duty, the President, of course, at all times wants to have the support of the American people. But if the American people are fundamentally opposed to, or totally in favor of, a military action anywhere in the world, the President will make his judgment about when to use force to protect the country on the basis of what he believes is best to protect the country, not on the basis of any poll for or against.
Q So basically you're saying the impact of the public's opinion has no meaning, meaning, actually, the anti-war demonstrations have no impact on the White House.
MR. FLEISCHER: No, Helen, what I'm saying is quite the contrary. The President, of course, seeks public support, and if the President makes a determination to use public -- use support, the President will go to the public. And I think you'll see he'll -- there will be even more support. At this very moment, the strong majority of the American people, as indicated by public polls, as on a very consistent and long-term basis, with little to no change since last August, have said that they support the use of force to disarm Saddam Hussein.
Q -- that he does expect that the public would support him if he goes -- I mean, they would rally the patriotism and so forth. Isn't this what the drumbeat is now, where major speeches every day in support of war?
MR. FLEISCHER: Well, I think there's no question that the administration is and will continue to take its case and make its case to the American people. We are a democracy, after all.
Q If he makes the case, why don't you produce the weapons?
MR. FLEISCHER: That's up to Saddam Hussein to produce the weapons. They're not in the possession of the United States.
Q No, if it was up to us -- we keep charging it; if we know something why don't we prove it"
MR. FLEISCHER: Well, let events take their course, Helen, and listen to Mr. Wolfowitz's speech today.
Q Are you going to pull a rabbit out of the hat?
MR. FLEISCHER: Terry.
Q Secretary Defense Rumsfeld yesterday seemed very dismissive of the position of France and Germany. He said, they're the "old" Europe. Does the President agree with that?
MR. FLEISCHER: Well, I think that the President and all members of his Cabinet look at Europe broadly, and would speak to many nations in Europe on many different levels. And the President has set in forth a series of events to work very closely with all nations of Europe. And that it the path that we'll pursue. And I think when you take a look at what's going on in Europe, vis-a-vis whether or not force should be used to disarm Saddam Hussein, and whether or not European governments will support the position of the United States, what you see is a tremendous amount of support for the American position.
There indeed are a couple nations that have spoken out otherwise, and in some cases they are big nations and they are important nations. But there are many nations in Europe that have expressed their opinions on this, and I think, from the President's point of view, President Bush is confident that Europe will answer the call.
It remains possible that France won't be on the line. But the President will continue to respect the nations that may or may not disagree with the United States' position on this at the end. And he will work productively with each of these nations, no matter what position they ultimately take. But there's no question the President is confident that Europe and much of the rest of the world will answer the call if the call is made.
Q I asked you this this morning -- both the President and Tony Blair and others have said that unity is essential in confronting Saddam Hussein because he will take any crack in international unity as an excuse, as a refuge to defy the will of the United Nations. Isn't France and Germany's position essentially giving him heart, giving him encouragement?
MR. FLEISCHER: No, no, the President does not believe that. The President respects the rights of sovereign nations to make their own decisions. That is one of the things that has kept the great alliance of NATO and the European Union and America's strong relations with Europe as strong as it has been through the ups and downs of 50 years, since the postwar period began. And that's because we are democracies. And on occasion, there may be a couple nations with whom we have disagreements.
The President does believe that the more the world is unified, the more Saddam Hussein feels the pressure, the more he will be willing to disarm peacefully. And that's why the President thinks it's important to continue the diplomacy. And he will. But at the end of the day, the President has made clear that if he makes the determination that the time has come where Saddam Hussein does need to disarm, because of the risks his armaments pose toward the United States and our interests, that he will lead a coalition of the willing. And I think it's fair to say it will be a rather robust coalition with many nations in it.
Q Just one more on the U.N. Libya was recently elected to chair the U.N. Human Rights Commission. It has an appalling record of human rights. Does the President believe -- and only three nations voted against Libya, none of them from Europe. Does the President believe that that undermines the moral authority of the U.N. to have Libya running the U.N. Human Rights Commission?
MR. FLEISCHER: Well, number one, the United States will, of course, work with member states of the human rights commission on behalf of human rights. It is clear that Libya, based on its own actions and its repression and its human rights violations in its own country, is a rather odd choice to be chairman of this group. When you take a look at the actual vote, for the first time there was widespread opposition to the naming of a chairman for that commission. Typically, it is done by acclimation. Many of the nation states either abstained or voted no in the selection of Libya. So this is a regrettable conclusion. But nevertheless, the United States will, of course, continue to work with the member states of the Human Rights Commission.
Q It doesn't affect the U.N.'s moral authority overall to deal with international problems if it names Libya as head of the Human Rights Commission?
MR. FLEISCHER: Well, certainly there were far better choices than Libya. Libya has a dismal record on human rights. And from the President's point of view, there would have been far better choices to have made to run that commission than Libya. I think from the President's point of view, it's a regrettable event.
Q Does the French position damage U.S. relations with France?
MR. FLEISCHER: Of course, not. No, France -- France remains an ally of the United States. France will always be an ally of the United States. And the ultimate position of France is unknown, and talks will continue with France. But I'm indicating that it is entirely conceivable that at the end of the day, when Europe answers the call, France won't be on the line. That is a distinct possibility. That's up to the French. No matter what decision the French make, the President will respect France, will respect France's leaders. And the United States and the people of the United States will continue to have a strong relationship with the people of France. It will not stop the President from doing what he believes is necessary to protect the world from the threat of Saddam Hussein.
Q Which nations do you think you can count on in the event there is a war?
MR. FLEISCHER: Well, again, I'm somewhat reluctant to name nations until those nations themselves name -- put their own name forward. Australia, of course, today, has taken the action that it's taken. And the President has thanked the people of Australia for their strong action.
But I think that it's fair to say that when you want to sum up where Europe is on this question, there are divisions in Europe. Europe doesn't have one opinion or one thought. Europe is divided with most of the governments of Europe in support of America. There are few who are not; there are a few who are not yet decided about what position they will take.
But when you take a look at England, when you take a look at the recent statements by the President of Italy that while they would prefer to go through the United Nations they will support the United States, when you take a look at all the nations of Eastern Europe who have their own recent history with how to deal with oppression and totalitarianism, there's a tremendous base of support. And I think that will become manifest. There are nations that get all the focus. Those aren't the only nations in Europe.
Q Going back to John's question about the need for a second resolution, our closest ally, Great Britain has said that they would like to have a second resolution from the U.N. Why not, if unity is so important, why not -- why aren't we saying that we're willing to go and get a second resolution when the U.S. and the coalition of the willing could act unilaterally regardless of what the U.N. voted?
MR. FLEISCHER: Well, one, I think it's important to finish the sentence of the British on this. They said that, but then they immediately added as part of the same sentence that the absence of a resolution does not stop the coalition from doing what it needs to do to protect the peace and to disarm Saddam Hussein. So it's not as if they're saying this is the only way to go.
And as I indicated in my answer earlier, the United States does believe that the United Nations is a helpful channel to achieve consensus and try to build coalitions. It is a preferable route, but it is not the only route. And it is an issue where the President has said repeatedly, if Saddam Hussein does not disarm, he will lead a coalition to disarm him. So I really don't think there's much of a difference in the approach on that. The only question is whether nations have said, without the United Nations, the rest of the world must be in handcuffs. And that's not a position the United States holds.
Q That's not the position that the British are taking either. Why wouldn't you say --
MR. FLEISCHER: No, that's identical.
Q So that your preference and you plan or would like to go get a second resolution first, maintaining the option as you have all along --
MR. FLEISCHER: As the President showed last fall, the preference is, as always, to build the maximum amount of support possible. But the President has said repeatedly and Secretary Powell has said repeatedly that handcuffs cannot be placed on the United States.
Q Why can't you say second resolution, though? Why does it have to be maximum support? Would you want a second resolution, or not?
MR. FLEISCHER: We want whatever channels are available to have the maximum amount of support. If that took the form of a second resolution, that would be a desirable event. It need not be the only event.
Q Back on Jerry Thacker, we've been talking about discrimination and issues of discrimination, race for the last couple of weeks. But Jerry -- granted, he's a man who has the disease himself, but not through -- well, apparently through the fact that his wife was infected through a blood transfusion. Is this gay bashing? Is this -- these words "gay plague" and "homosexuality is a death-style," is that gay bashing? And is there room in this country, not just in this administration or the commission, but is there room for --
MR. FLEISCHER: Those words are as wrong as they are inappropriate. And they are not shared by the President.
Q But he -- you said something about could or could not be sworn in. But when is there going to be something said from the administration to say that this man will not come into the administration? I mean, granted it's not the President --
MR. FLEISCHER: These are not presidential appointments. They are appointments made at the Cabinet level.
Q Understanding. But can the administration say, look, this man is not allowed to be on this commission because he is, indeed, gay bashing, even if he --
MR. FLEISCHER: I just urge you not to leap to any conclusions that he is on this commission or will be on this commission. These announcements come at the Cabinet level.
Q A comment on Iraq, somewhat obliquely. In addition to France and Germany and countries that would logically be against immediate action or any kind of action, such as perhaps Russia and China, but now Canada -- in addition, NATO is taking the position it would like to wait and give the inspectors more time. And for the first time, meeting with reporters, the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs, General Richard Myers, says, look, we don't have to go now; we could wait several months and still have our fighting edge. Is this leaning the President -- who has been saying time is running out for Saddam Hussein -- is it leaning him to perhaps wait, to perhaps give more time without going in, say, immediately?
MR. FLEISCHER: I think the President has made it very plain when the President has said that time is running out. And as I've indicated, the President has not put a more precise timetable on it. If a more precise timetable will emerge, the President will be the one to inform the country about that. And that's, frankly, where it stands.
Q Let me do a follow-up then. But is the President willing to go against the apparent wishes of European nations and NATO and Canada and maybe others to act sooner than they would perhaps like the United States and the coalition to act?
MR. FLEISCHER: Reverse the question, are there European nations who are willing to go against a larger number of their colleague European nations who agree with the United States about the approach we're taking and may finally -- if and when the President makes the judgment that it is time to go -- will stand with the United States. That's why I indicated to you that the President is confident that Europe will answer the call if the call is made.
But again, the focus, the questions all seem to be on the few, not the many who are supportive of the President's position. And there are, indeed, many who are in support of the President's position. And I'm sure they're ready and willing to be found.
Q You said that there's very little time left and that there's little maneuvering left for -- it's up to Saddam Hussein to not go the path of war. But short of Saddam Hussein either stepping down or being overthrown or killed by the Iraqi people, what are the credible options that the Iraqi regime has? To go forward and say, okay, well, there's a new declaration, here's what we really have. Or here's a site, look for yourself, these are the weapons of mass destruction we've been hiding -- I mean, those options can't seem to be credible, have any kind of credibility if Saddam Hussein is not to be trusted.
MR. FLEISCHER: And that's the heart of the problem. If Saddam Hussein is not willing to take on the obligations he committed to take on, then it's proof-perfect that Saddam Hussein remains just as much of a threat to the world today as he was in the 1990s when he had possession of the weapons of mass destruction and, as everybody knows, he used them.
He still has the weapons of mass destruction. And so the issue remains, again, the world has called on Saddam Hussein to disarm. Saddam Hussein has weapons of mass destruction. And as Deputy Secretary Wolfowitz is pointing out in New York today, there is verifiable and visible proof on how nations that intend to disarm act. Saddam Hussein is acting just the opposite of how the nations that previously disarmed are acting. We have proof-perfect. Khazakstan did it. It was done in South Africa. It was done in the Ukraine. Saddam Hussein is doing the opposite of what the nations that showed that they were disarming is doing.
Q -- saying is that it's up to Saddam Hussein to show that he's disarmed, and then you're saying, he's not to be trusted, he hasn't disarmed -- what options does he have left to actually change course --
MR. FLEISCHER: Disarm. Disarm. Show the world where he is hiding his weapons and disarm them.
Q How could you possibly know that if you don't trust what he says or what he does?
MR. FLEISCHER: Because we know he has weapons of mass destruction.
Q Ari, is the President most comfortable -- more comfortable in Europe, working with the Central European countries who have all expressed -- or there's been widespread support amongst those nations for the Iraq policy -- than he is sort of the older line, France, Germany --
MR. FLEISCHER: No, I think the President is comfortable working with all these nations. And on different issues, there's going to be a different level of cooperation, depending on the nature of the issue.
Q And so there are interesting things happening in Europe. There are interesting changes underway in Europe as the Eastern Europe nations join Europe and join NATO and join the EU. Europe is a changing place; it always has been. Europe is a more peaceful place than it was in previous centuries, and Europe is a very -- a place with great variety. And the fact of the end of communism has brought a tremendous number of new nations into Europe. And these new nations see things very much the American way in terms of their approach to us on these security issues. They understand the price of repression and the price of oppression. They understand what it was like to live, recently, under tyranny. And they understand that sometimes it is important to step up to the fight against tyranny.
Q You talk about the focus on the few, and not the many in Europe. Are there long-term ramifications or what do you think they are for U.S. -German or U.S.-French relations, given the position that they're taking now with Iraq?
MR. FLEISCHER: None. I think it's one of the strengths of the alliance that there are going to be issues on which we differ. And that is what part of what democracies do, and that's part of why democracies endure. And they endure beyond the terms of any one leader, they endure for generations. And that's the great success story of Europe. That's the great success story that we're watching grow before our eyes in Eastern Europe.
And so, as I indicated, it's entirely the prerogative of the nation states to make their own determinations. And I think, still, it's fair to say that at the end, no one knows what the final determinations they will make will be. I think if you had gone back to September or November, after the President went to the United States and said, how will the nations vote on the Security Council resolution, if you recall, there was a tremendous amount of unknown in October and November until the votes were cast. So it still remains a question of the unknown. But what is known, in terms of the support for the American position, is that it's widespread and under-covered.
Q Well, tell us who they are.
MR. FLEISCHER: I just did.
Q A follow-up to your Australian statement. There are many people in Australia who have misgivings about America -- about supporting this initiative. Do you have any words for them? And are there any plans for President Bush to talk to or visit with Prime Minister Howard in the near future?
MR. FLEISCHER: As always, we'll keep you informed of the phone calls, et cetera. But just as I indicated, the President is very grateful and today publicly thanks the people of Australia and the government of Australia for their actions. It will help to keep the peace.
Q Governor Ridge is going to be sworn in tomorrow. Can you give us an idea how soon Americans can expect to see the Department of Homeland Security up to speed, and what do you see the immediate challenges Governor Ridge faces?
MR. FLEISCHER: Governor Ridge will be sworn in tomorrow. And that begins a rather formalized process of the various entities that will soon move to the Department of Homeland Security, actually making the move. Under the actions that the administration has taken, in accordance with the law, virtually all the agencies slotted to move in will do so around March 1st, on or about March 1st. And the plans to move them in are proceeding very much along the lines that were laid out when we announced this several months ago.
I think it's going to be, as with the creation of any new, large entity in the government, a transition period as the challenges that are faced by any new agency will be addressed. And we will work very hard to make any of the bumps in the transition as small and minimal as possible. But surely, there will be some.
But the reason that the Congress and the President got together in such a bipartisan, overwhelmingly supportive way to create this new department is the clear conclusion that this new department, by harnessing the powers of the various agencies that will now be there -- Transportation Security Administration, the Coast Guard, the Secret Service -- will now be better able to protect the country from the risk of terrorism. That's the charge of the new department, that's its mission, and it will now be up and underway.
Q What are the most immediate challenges, the areas that most urgently need work right now?
MR. FLEISCHER: The most urgent areas remain the definition of the department -- it's the critical infrastructure; it's the border security; it's those type of issues that will continue to be the top priorities, the intelligence analysis -- all of the core missions remain their top priorities.
Q You said repeatedly the President wants to have the broadest possible support that he can get among allies in Europe and elsewhere in the world for any possible action against Iraq. Why then, to bolster the President's case, not release any intelligence, any information, new information you've gathered that proves beyond a shadow of a doubt to any skeptics or any reluctant foreign governments that he is a clear and present danger and has moved forward since 1998 in his effort to obtain weapons of mass destruction --
MR. FLEISCHER: I think that over time, the President will continue to make his case. And I've been asked repeatedly about when the President gives an address, for example, the State of the Union on Tuesday night, does the President have a message for foreign governments? The President is very cognizant of the fact that every time he communicates, it's a
message that's heard abroad. And that's why I said to you today that the President is confident that Europe, if the call is made, will answer the call. And there may be some exceptions. But again, the President begins this confident that the world will answer.
Q Do you say that -- do you say that implying that there will be some new evidence? I mean, will there or won't there?
MR. FLEISCHER: Let events take their course. That's a question I've never answered before. You're always able to judge the President's speech every day the President gives a speech. You'll be judging Secretary Wolfowitz's speech today. There's going to be some important new information in Secretary Wolfowitz's speech.
Q This morning at the gaggle, you mentioned some names of countries you would like to have support from, including Australia, Great Britain, Italy, countries of Eastern Europe. You also mentioned in passing Spain. Is Spain one of the countries the United States expects support from against Iraq?
MR. FLEISCHER: Again, the President, as I said, is confident Europe will answer the call. Clearly, the public statements that Spain has made -- and all my references are to public statements -- have been supportive of American actions. Again, this is why the President has this confidence. And the President understands that there are going to be gradations of difference, even with our closest allies on this.
Fundamentally, at the end, when it comes down to it, if the President makes the judgment that military force is necessary, he is indeed confident that Europe will answer the call, and much of the world will answer the call. There will, indeed, be some who won't, and the President respects that. And he will move beyond that.
Q On a different subject, speaking of Tom Ridge, there was a version circulating that the Department of Homeland Security would be moving its main office out of Washington, D.C., into parts of Northern Virginia. Now, it's been said that now they will remain in Washington. Did the White House have anything to do -- did Mr.Ridge consult with President Bush on this possible move?
MR. FLEISCHER: I don't do real estate, so I really couldn't answer. These are questions that -- frankly, I pay some other attention to other things, but I don't really get involved in the real estate issues.
Q Again in regards to Iraq and France and Germany, you've said that it's natural that there may be some countries that stand on the sidelines and do not get involved. But what about countries now that are supposed to be allies that are actively trying to obstruct U.S. action, i.e., France and Germany with NATO -- on NATO aid?
MR. FLEISCHER: Number one, Germany's position is long known, well-known, and I don't anticipate anything changing it. That's the prerogative of the German government. And as I indicated earlier, there are positions that other nations are taking where it's not quite clear what the position will be in the end. This is ongoing.
The point that I'm leaving you with is that when you add it all up and you want to know what does the President think, the President is confident that Europe will answer the call. And it is possible that France won't be on the line. That will not stop the President from continuing to work with France on a number of issues. These are the legitimate prerogatives that sovereign nations hold, and they are free to come to their own conclusions and make their own judgments.
Q Ari, how does the threat of war affect the mission of the new Homeland Security Department?
MR. FLEISCHER: No matter what the threat, the mission of the Homeland Security Department is to work to coordinate the activities of these various agencies that will now be housed under one roof, making it easier for them to carry out their mission. And so I think it's fair to say that work that is carried out inside of each of the existing agencies, whether it is the Coast Guard, whether it is the Secret Service, whether it is the Transportation Security Administration, in the event of any type of military conflict, they, of course, are able to step up any of their activities to continue to protect the American people. That will continue even as they work under one new roof.
Q Do you think it adds any sense of urgency to the challenge that Ridge and company are going to face?
MR. FLEISCHER: I think the challenge of the Department of Homeland Security remains urgent. Since September 11th, even absent anything that may or may not involve Iraq, it is an urgent challenge that the American people have turned to the federal government for and said that it is the role of the federal government, and the President agrees, to provide the greatest protections to the American people. That's why the President has made such a focus on Homeland Security and provided it with the increased funding in his budget that he has.
Q Ari, two things. The President's auto safety chief, Dr. Jeffrey Runge, says that people who drive sports utility vehicles are especially vulnerable to fatal rollovers because the vehicle's high center of gravity makes them more likely to tip during sudden maneuvers. He says that if automakers don't make SUVs safer, the government should step in to mandate the changes.
Does the President agree with Dr. Runge that sports utility vehicles are not safe enough and that consumers should think twice before buying one?
MR. FLEISCHER: I think the President is guided on issues like this by the best expert analysis and there are a variety of different analyses on this. I'm not clear that that's the prevailing view.
Q That's his auto safety chief, though.
MR. FLEISCHER: That's one of the things he said. I'm not sure that's the only thing he said on this topic.
Q Second question. A group of victims of medical malpractice are in town today to protest the President's proposed cap on medical malpractice damages. One, Linda McDougal, underwent a double mastectomy after being mistakenly told she had breast cancer. She said that "President Bush wants to put through a cap on medical malpractice compensation. His intent is to harm me." The other, Kathy Olson, her son Steven was severely brain damaged due to a medical error, and his compensation was drastically cut to a similar cap under California law. They want to meet with the President to present their views. Will the President meet with them?
MR. FLEISCHER: Russell, the President's point of view on this is that people who are denied the medical services that they need and they deserve have every right to court. But the problem that we have in our society today is that right to court has been abused -- not by cases for the people who are in need, but by lawyers who prey off of the cases of people who are not in need -- to create a new system that has become such a lottery where people go to court and attempt to win millions; that what we have, instead, is a system where mom's who are pregnant who want to have babies are losing their ability to go see a doctor. That's the other side of this story that the President is also focused on.
The President wants to make sure that we have a legal system that works for the people who deserve help, and that's why the President's proposal does not call for caps in all regards. It calls for caps in noneconomic damages, which has been the source of the greatest abuse. But there is no cap on the actual economic damages that people suffer under the President's proposal. But the President wants to make certain that the abuses in the system, that the frivolous lawsuits in the system, that the lottery-awards nature of the system is corrected. We have a crisis in America when it comes to health care and health care delivery, particularly affecting pregnant women, who are rapidly -- across the country, in West Virginia and Pennsylvania, throughout America, particularly rural areas -- losing their abilities to see doctors who can deliver the health care they need.
Q So will the President meet with these victims who are in town?
MR. FLEISCHER: I'll let you know if there's anything on the schedule. There's nothing on the schedule today.
Q Ari, can you tell us what the President is doing over the next few days to prepare for the State of the Union?
MR. FLEISCHER: The President received his first draft of the State of the Union on Friday last week. He took it to Camp David and has been working on it ever since. I think right now it's fair to say the President is very deep in the mid-course of the State of the Union draftings and re-draftings. He has a meeting on his schedule today, for example, with the speechwriters to go over the text and to continue the editing, the changing process. And then the President will -- he has not yet conducted his first dress rehearsal at the TelePrompter. He will do so. And I anticipate the President will work on it over the weekend, as well.
Q Do you have an approximate length?
MR. FLEISCHER: No, not yet. Too soon. We'll have it, but it's too soon to give it to you today.
Q Going back to the previous malpractice question, is the President at least willing to acknowledge that in some circumstances -- like the circumstance he pointed out where the woman had the double mastectomy, even though she didn't need one -- that she will probably, under the President's plan will not receive as much compensation as, perhaps, she's entitled to? I mean, she may not have any economic losses in the long run because of this, but her compensation for pain and suffering will be capped at $250,000. So isn't it fair to say that some people will suffer economically under this?
MR. FLEISCHER: The President thinks that the current system is so out of line that more people are suffering as a result of the current system which is inviting frivolous lawsuits because it's so easy for lawyers to collect damages in a lottery-like system, most of -- 40 percent of which never even goes to the victim of a medical liability issue. It goes to the lawyers.
Q That's why -- just get the foot in the door, some people -- while you're saying most people would suffer --
MR. FLEISCHER: The President thinks that we can create a more balanced playing field so that the needs of people who are hurt can be fully addressed. But it does not do so at the price of denying medical care to millions of people who are not involved in lawsuits, but because of the consequences of these lawsuits are losing their abilities to see their doctors.
Q Ari, when President Harry Truman gave the order to end racial discrimination in our Armed Forces, do you or the President -- from what I am sure is your extensive knowledge of the presidency -- do you recall anyone in Truman's Cabinet who publicly opposed this action against racial discrimination, as Secretary Powell is publicly opposing the President's effort to end racial discrimination in admissions to the University of Michigan?
MR. FLEISCHER: Number one, on your Truman question, I'm sure you know the answer. And I'm sure you will elucidate --
Q No, I -- my impression -- I consulted with Helen. (Laughter.) And she doesn't remember either that any one of those Cabinet members ever spoke out against Harry Truman, who I think would have fired them --
MR. FLEISCHER: Helen, have you ever consulted with Lester Kinsolving? Yes or no? (Laughter.)
Q She did this morning.
Q You weren't born with Truman, were you?
MR. FLEISCHER: No. (Laughter.) Thank you for that.
Lester, let me tell you what the President thinks. The President has an administration that works so well as a team, and the President has such confidence in his staff and in his personnel, that the President welcomes the thought of his Cabinet on issues. The President does not expect his Cabinet to agree with him 100 percent of the time. The President has an old expression that, if everybody agreed with everybody 100 percent of the time, not everybody would be necessary.
And so the President understands that people he's put in his Cabinet arrive in the Cabinet having taken different positions. And the country is better for it, and the President is better for it because he hears a diversity of viewpoint.
Q The New York Daily News, the Schenectady Gazette and WorldNet Daily have all reported that former U.N. weapons inspector Scott Ritter, who has called for President Bush's impeachment, was twice in three months caught by policewomen who he thought were underage girls and he was charged with attempted endangerment of children. And my question is, considering that The Washington Post reported another American who was appointed to the U.N. inspections team is a sado-masochist, and now we have Ritter, surely, the President -- in his strong opposition to these two perversions -- regrets that -- the U.N. appointment of these two, doesn't he, Ari? I mean, you know where the President stands, Ari?
MR. FLEISCHER: I'm sure that the President --
Q He must oppose that --
MR. FLEISCHER: The President -- Lester, the President does not micromanage the personnel process of the United Nations. The President --
Q He's appalled at these two people, isn't he, Ari?
MR. FLEISCHER: I said the President is focused on the results of the inspections and what Saddam Hussein is doing.
Q Ari, did the President initiate the call with President Putin? And after their conversation, is he more confident now that Russia is siding closer to the U.S. than with France and Germany?
MR. FLEISCHER: In terms of who called, typically these things are a combination, developed at the staff level to say the bosses should talk. And it's set up as a mutual call. That typically is the order of these phone calls. But the President, again, is confident that he will make his case to allies and friends, including President Putin. He respects what their opinions are. And he will continue work consultatively and closely with them.
Q Thank you.
MR. FLEISCHER: Thank you.
END 1:40 P.M. EST