Press Gaggle with Ari Fleischer - March 26, 2003
For Immediate Release
Office of the Press Secretary
March 26, 2003
Press Gaggle with Ari
Aboard Air Force One
En Route Tampa, Florida
9:49 A.M. EST
MR. FLEISCHER: Good morning. All right. A little info on today and tomorrow.
Q Say again?
MR. FLEISCHER: A little information on today and tomorrow. The President, before he departed the White House this morning, had his intelligence briefing and FBI briefing.
He will make remarks to MacDill Air Force Base SOCOM and CENTCOM community today. The President's remarks will talk about progress being made in the war. He will address the families of those who are sacrificing. The President will say that our progress is ahead of schedule, yet the war is
far from over. He will talk about how we cannot predict the final day of Iraq's regime, but he can assure the long-suffering people of Iraq there will be a day of reckoning for the Iraqi regime, and that day is drawing near.
The President, after his speech, will then receive a briefing at CENTCOM, at the Joint Intelligence Center, about operations in Iraq, and then another briefing on Operation Enduring Freedom. The President will also have lunch with U.S. military personnel.
Also in the President's remarks today and as part of the visit will be a focus on the international coalition, the other nations that are joining with us in these important efforts.
Then the President will return to Washington, and upon arrival at Andrews, the President will depart immediately for Camp David, where he will have a very small dinner with Prime Minister Blair tonight. And then, tomorrow the President will have a series of meetings with Prime Minister Blair; Secretary Powell will join the President, of course, and they will talk about ongoing issues involving humanitarian relief efforts for Iraq, reconstruction efforts for Iraq, role of the United Nations in the reconstruction of Iraq. All that will get discussed tomorrow.
There will be a news conference at 11:00 a.m. tomorrow at Camp David with Prime Minister Blair. And there will be no red-eye tomorrow as a result -- no red-eye, no gaggle, no briefing tomorrow, as a result of events up at Camp David. You'll instead be wined and dined and entertained by the summit-level news conference of the President and the Prime Minister.
Let the transcript show, open parenthesis, some mild levels of laughter, closed parenthesis. (Some mild levels of laughter.)
Q Ari, when you say progress is ahead of schedule -- what are you basing that on? Or when the President says that.
MR. FLEISCHER: Based on the progress that is being made on the military battlefield, the advance toward Baghdad, and the success that we are having engaging enemy units.
Q Is the President concerned that the stiff resistance that Iraq -- certain Iraqi units are putting up will undermine some of the support among some of the countries in the region that are helping us now?
MR. FLEISCHER: Absolutely not. What we're seeing is a coalition carrying the mission to the enemy, and the President, in his remarks today, will express America's appreciation for our allies who are helping out in this effort.
Q Hasn't the Arab League kind of stiffened some of its rhetoric in denouncing the military -- U.S. attack on Iraq?
MR. FLEISCHER: The President remains confident in the solid support of our allies and friends, even those who aren't publicly saying what they are doing or thinking.
Q Ari, will the administration have to boost the troop strength?
MR. FLEISCHER: That's a question you need to address to DOD. They handle planning like that.
Q Isn't it now apparent that there are not going to be widespread surrenders like some, including the Vice President, suggested might be expected?
MR. FLEISCHER: No. I don't know what basis anybody might have for that. We're still in the very earliest stages of the fighting, and I think a lot more events to be seen and witnessed on the ground by embedded journalists and others as events unfold.
Q Didn't we expect those widespread surrenders even in the initial phases of the war?
MR. FLEISCHER: Well, again, I think you have seen already widespread surrenders. You've seen just under, as of yesterday, 4,000 enemy POWs taken. You've seen the disbanding of a large number of the regular Iraqi army military units. And so I think you already are seeing evidence of that, and in days ahead, I think you will likely see more.
Q In the President's warnings, though, of the sacrifices that lie ahead, is this not an acknowledgement that those sacrifices may well be greater than certainly the administration planned for and Americans planned for?
MR. FLEISCHER: With all due respect, how many did America plan for? I mean, you're comparing it to something that was not previously stated, so I don't know how to answer a question about that, when you say "more than planned for." There was no -- the President always said sacrifices would
need to be made. It's an unknowable figure what that is.
Q Are you adjusting the war message -- the Post has an article saying you're adjusting your message to prepare for higher casualties.
MR. FLEISCHER: I don't know anything about that. As many reporters knew from over the weekend, we laid out all these public series of events kind of -- into this week about where the President was going, what he was going to do. So there's no basis to that.
Q Is there anything else after -- when does it wrap up at Camp David tomorrow? Is the President coming back from there, going back up? What about Friday?
MR. FLEISCHER: Yes, the President will be back at the White House Thursday in the late afternoon.
Q Ari, within the 48-hour window, can you talk about Friday?
MR. FLEISCHER: Didn't bring it with me and I don't remember if off the top of my head. So let me get that --
Q -- Camp David at the end of the day?
MR. FLEISCHER: I didn't bring it with me, don't have it. I'll figure it out and let you know, though.
Q Ari, there are reports that Prime Minister Blair is going to emphasize mending relations with the United Nations and some of European countries where there have been rifts, and also talk about having the U.N. participate in running Iraq, rather than the U.S., as have been some reports. Is that your understanding, too, those will be on the agenda?
MR. FLEISCHER: Well, as I said in my opening remarks about the purpose of the visit at Camp David, they will be talking about the United Nations role in the reconstruction efforts and humanitarian efforts.
Q -- all that mending relations with France and Germany and some of the other countries --
MR. FLEISCHER: I think it's always important to continue to have good relations, and relations with Spain -- I'm sorry, relations with Germany and France are indeed strained over events in Iraq. And I think that Germany and France have an interest in mending relations with the United States;
the United States has an interest in working with those countries. So those are always endeavors that will be pursued.
Q Given the U.N.'s failure to be able to kind of act on Iraq in the second resolution phase, is the President doubtful about their efficacy in a post-Saddam Iraq as well at this point?
MR. FLEISCHER: Well, as I said yesterday, you have to approach the United Nations' role in two broad areas. One is on a security area, maintaining the peace by disarming Saddam Hussein's regime and enforcing U.N. resolutions. And on that, the United Nations Security Council failed to
act. On the other side of the United Nations' endeavors is the humanitarian relief efforts, reconstruction efforts. And the President's focus is, as indicated at the Azores, that the United Nations should play a role.
The President is focused on what is the most effective way to provide humanitarian relief, the most effective way to have reconstruction of Iraq. And certainly as you witness the military tactics and the precision manner in which the war is being conducted, that has implications for the extent of reconstruction necessary. There are other issues, of course, involving political leadership, et cetera, separate and apart from the precise
military campaign. But the United Nations should have a role, in the President's judgment. The exact role is something we'll talk about.
Q The reports in the paper today suggested that Blair interpreted the discussion at the Azores to be a commitment from the President for a large role for the U.N. in not just delivering of humanitarian aid through oil-for-food, or something like that, but in governing of Iraq. Is that a fair --
MR. FLEISCHER: I keep saying the President believes the United Nations should have a role, and we're discussing what the role should be. And the statement at the Azores speaks for itself. The President stands by it; that's why he said it.
Q -- what do you know about the reports of massacres of American citizens in Nasiriya, the Army mechanics that were coming through that were
MR. FLEISCHER: You need to talk to DOD on something like that.
Q And on the tax cut, how much of yesterday -- was that a setback at all? I know that you said that there are still many votes to come, but
are you confident that the President will get what he asked for? And if he doesn't --
MR. FLEISCHER: Let me make two points, one on substance, one on process. On the substance, don't be fooled; that wasn't a vote to pare back the size of the tax cut, that was a vote to increase the amount of spending that the government does. No one should think that because they pared back the size of the tax cut, the money will be saved. It won't be saved, it will be spent.
On the process side of it, it remains to be seen whether that is indeed the final word. If it is the final word, then, of course, you go into a
conference with the House where that figure in the Senate will serve as a springboard to a tax cut number that is finally settled on, which, of course, the House has spoken out about and is a significantly higher number. So we'll see what the ultimate outcome is.
But there's still more votes to come in the Senate. There are going to be other efforts to return the tax cut closer to its original size. So we'll see what the final outcome is.
Q How optimistic are you of getting the war bill by April 7th? I see Tom DeLay has suggested the flexibility part might give even the House
MR. FLEISCHER: The target date was April 11th, and that was the date suggested by members of Congress. I think it would be difficult for members of Congress to explain why they were leaving for a recess if they didn't get the war supplemental approved. So one of the greatest lessons in
watching Congress over decades is that recesses have a way of forcing votes to take place. So we'll see what the date is. The President hopes they will get it done quickly.
Q What about DeLay's comments on the flexibility part giving them some problems?
MR. FLEISCHER: Clearly, the President made his proposal; Congress will now review it. The President expressed his desire for that flexibility because he believes it's the most efficacious way to deliver the funding necessary to fight the war. You remember, there was some flexibility provided in other appropriation bills after September 11th. So there is indeed a recent precedent for this.
We'll see what Congress does. We'll work with them on it.
Q Ari, is it possible to stimulate the economy with something less than this $750 billion that you asked for?
MR. FLEISCHER: The way the President approaches it is, what's the best way to create the most jobs. Private sector forecasts show the economy will continue to grow and is likely to grow even more in the second half of the year and into next year. The question is, what message will Congress send unemployed workers who are waiting for the economy to grow fast enough to put them to work. And the more they shrink the tax cut, the harder it will be for people to find work, because the economy won't grow as fast.
So that's the administration's focus on it. And -- just story is still being written; we'll see what they do.
Q It clearly was a shot across the bow from even some moderate Republicans who voted to chop the tax in half and --
MR. FLEISCHER: Man, a shot across the bow. Listen, there have been scores of votes taking place on the floor of the Senate. It's a democratic
process. There's no debate over the fact that there's a debate over tax cuts and the size of the tax cuts. That's why Congress votes on these matters.
Q Do you think the administration hasn't done a good enough job lobbying or convincing?
MR. FLEISCHER: No, I think there's an extraordinarily narrow margin in the Senate and in the House, and on any given vote a couple switches by a Democrat means a Republican win with a sizeable margin. A couple -- a small margin. A couple swings of Republicans to the Democrat side means the Democrat side will win with a small margin. It's reality in the Senate.
Q Has the President called Senators Voinovich, Snowe, Chafee on this?
MR. FLEISCHER: Keep in mind where we are in this process. This still it is -- we're in the middle of the beginning of the process in the Senate. They haven't finished all the votes, they still have to go to conference where a considerable amount of the give-and-take in the final determinations are made. So remember where we are in the process.
No matter where we are, we're well ahead of last year, where the Senate never even passed a budget.
Q Ari, is the President at all surprised by the seeming very quick turnaround from where people were on Friday? I mean, it seems like some of these senators kind of changed their votes overnight.
MR. FLEISCHER: Again, it's a reflection of how closely divided the Senate is. And I think people can expect on any number of issues close votes in the Senate, where either side can win. But again, there's a very important substantive issue here, and people should not be fooled about what the Senate has done. This is not a vote to trim the size of the tax cut, this is a vote to increase government spending. That money will not be
saved. And no one should expect it would be.
Q They say it's going to be earmarked for Social Security. Is that bad?
MR. FLEISCHER: Of course, that's what they say. But that doesn't hold water. It will be spent.
Q Are you concerned that the fact that Olympia Snowe and some of these moderate Republicans have said that the reason -- the cost of the war
is the reason why they had to do this? Are you afraid now that the war is going to be used -- the cost of the war is going to be used as an excuse by people to not put the tax cut through, or some of the President's domestic policies to go through because of this?
MR. FLEISCHER: Whatever the reason members give, members are doing their due diligence. They cast their votes in principle. We'll continue to
work with them. The President thinks that the best outcome is a tax cut that is along the lines of what he proposed to get the most growth in the economy.
Q Ari, did the President personally review this reported shift in strategy to actually go into some of these southern cities?
MR. FLEISCHER: Talk to DOD about whether that report is accurate or inaccurate. I think that probably came up in General Franks' briefing this
morning. And just as a matter of policy, I can't get into what the President is briefed on or not briefed on in these classified briefings.
Q Does the President have a view on the reported rebellion in Basra? Does he think that's a good thing, or does he think it's possibly problematic?
MR. FLEISCHER: You need to talk to DOD about the facts on events on the ground.
Q Would he, in general, like to see the people in Iraq rebel against the government, or does that present a problem for our forces?
MR. FLEISCHER: The President is focused on our mission, and the mission is to disarm the Iraqi regime and liberate the Iraqi people.
Q Ari, you were talking about making progress or being possibly ahead, but we were never given benchmarks about where we expected to be. I mean, where did you expect to be on day seven of the war?
MR. FLEISCHER: All I can advise you is listen to the President's speech and when the President is saying what he's saying it's because he has reason to say it. And you hear that same message from the military planners.
Q Did Blair ask for this meeting?
MR. FLEISCHER: Steve, so often on these meetings, it's -- and I answer this often in this way -- it's mutual. There's talk at various levels; typically it starts at the staff level, and then it's raised to the principals in their different capitals, and suggestion is made, get together. And
this is -- specifically, I couldn't tell you. Typically these things have some type of mutuality to it.
Q And at what point do you see the U.N. getting involved in the reconstruction effort?
MR. FLEISCHER: Well, exactly as was said in the Azores statement, that there's a role anticipated for the United Nations both on the humanitarian relief side and the reconstruction side. Certainly, in the United Nations, as the keeper of the oil-for-food program; that's an important program. And so they indeed have a role.
And again, the President's focus is on what is effective, what will do the most good to help the most people on the ground in Iraq, and who can best get it done. How can we feed people the fastest and the most effectively? How can we rebuild the country the fastest and the most effectively?
That's the President's focus. He wants the United Nations to have a role in that.
Q Does the President have any reaction, though, that France and Germany are still the same kind of -- the same people who are now trying to hold up this oil-for-food program happening? I mean, they were the ones who sort of killed -- at least France the administration has fingered as killing the second resolution.
MR. FLEISCHER: Well, this is -- this still is part and parcel of the United Nations process. And the United Nations process is a process that involves talks. And member states on the United Nations Security Council and in the United Nations have a right to talk. So -- Dr. Rice went up to New York yesterday to talk to Kofi Annan, and we'll continue to work through the process as it exists.
Q Are the reports that she didn't make any progress are true?
MR. FLEISCHER: I wouldn't say that. I think that this is part of the talks at the United Nations. I think if we've learned anything from the United Nations recently, it's they don't move very quickly.
Q Will there be any -- at the briefing today at MacDill, will there be a teleconference with Franks, like there was yesterday at the Pentagon?
MR. FLEISCHER: Don't remember off the top of my head. Let me -- I'll take a look and see if there is or isn't. I don't know.
Q Do you know yet who is coming to dinner tonight?
MR. FLEISCHER: It's very small. It's, I think, three and three, if I recall. So it's the President, Dr. Rice, one other American, and three British. Very small dinner tonight.
Q And Mrs. Bush?
MR. FLEISCHER: I don't remember. I'll see if we can't update that.
Q -- President have lunch today with the troops, can we get a readout about what he has, talking to them, kind of --
MR. FLEISCHER: Well, the briefings, of course, will be classified briefings. So there won't be a readout from the briefings. There will be pool at the top of the lunch, so you'll be able to see the environment there. I think you know that, you've seen the President have lunch with troops
before -- it will be similar.
Q Yes, why was the French toast named Freedom toast? (Laughter.)
Q Is that a White House decision?
MR. FLEISCHER: I'm not a Hobbit, so I didn't have a second breakfast. I had my breakfast before I came in. Is that what it said?
MR. FLEISCHER: It said Freedom toast?
Q Was that at the administration request, or was that --
MR. FLEISCHER: I just -- we're always proud of the men and women of our Air Force. (Laughter.)
Q Just to be clear, the briefings today, are they -- they're different than his regular kind of daily updates that he gets, or his briefings
that he has with General Franks? Is this like a special thing set up because he's going to CENTCOM?
MR. FLEISCHER: Yes, this is -- this involves -- well, of course, you have Operation Enduring Freedom is one of the briefings here, as I mentioned. That's about Afghanistan. And particularly at the National Security Council meeting, those are the meetings with the principals. This involves more of the generals based at CENTCOM who are in charge of various operations.
Okay? Nothing else? Thanks, everybody.
END 10:09 A.M. EST