CNN LIVE EVENT/SPECIAL
Ari Fleischer Conducts White House Press Briefing
Aired January 17, 2002 - 12:04 ET
THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.
THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.
LEON HARRIS, CNN ANCHOR: And now we want to welcome you our coverage of the day's White House press briefing. Ari Fleischer there taking the podium.
ARI FLEISCHER, WHITE HOUSE PRESS SECRETARY: Let me give you a rundown on the president's day, and then I have a couple announcements to make.
The president this morning called Prime Minister Blair to discuss the war on terrorism. They also spoke about developments in South Asia, with India and Pakistan. The president noted and praised President Musharraf's speech over the weekend, which has succeeded thus far in reducing tensions, and they also discussed Prime Minister Blair's visit to the region last week and Secretary Powell's current meetings in India and Pakistan.
The president then convened a meeting, was briefed by the Central Intelligence Agency, the FBI, and then convened a meeting of his National Security Council. He is having lunch with the vice president as we speak. And then the president will depart the White House to visit a group of labor leaders -- the Teamster's, the carpenters, the seafarers and the building trades people of the AFL-CIO -- to talk about the importance of the Senate taking action on energy legislation, which the president will create jobs for workers in America, as well as provide greater energy independence to our country.
Then the president will, later this afternoon, sign into law the Safe and Stable Families Program. This bipartisan act of Congress will strengthen families, promote adoption and help vulnerable children, principally through a program that provides a brand new, $25 million federal grant to help mentor children whose parents, typically fathers, are in prison. That's a program the president talked about extensively throughout the campaign. The president believes very deeply in the need for the government to help children of prisoners. They've done nothing wrong themselves, yet they need a helping hand because they're among society's most vulnerable.
The president will then meet with the president of Lithuania, and he will do a drop-by and visit with his bioethics commission, which will have its first meeting today, and the president has charged that commission with a high moral calling, to review how those wonderful breakthroughs in science and medicine will have an impact in relieving suffering, curing disease, while at the same time protecting life and human dignity.
That's a description of the president's. Two other announcements.
FLEISCHER: No word yet. We'll have that announced by lower press a little later.
Two other announcements for you.
The president wants to express his appreciation to the United Nations for the vote yesterday in the Security Council which updated and expanded and focused the sanctions against Osama bin Laden and the Al Qaeda and the Taliban.
The resolution requires United Nations states to expand financial sanctions or to impose asset freezes and to impose a travel restriction and an arms embargo. The resolution also has the effect of lifting the ban on Ariana Airlines, the Afghan national airline.
The United States worked hard for the passage of the resolution, and the president is very pleased that the United Nations has taken a strong role once again with the United States and the rest of the world against terrorism.
Finally, the president will welcome to Washington Uruguayan President Jorge Batlle on February 15.
And with that, I'm happy to take your questions.
QUESTION: There's a report, Ari, that the U.S. Special Forces have arrested two Bosnian Serb leaders, Radovan Karadzic and Ratko Mladic. Do you know anything about that?
FLEISCHER: That's the first I've heard on that report, so I don't have anything on it.
QUESTION: Ari, a (inaudible) for Congressman Waxman's reaction to what you said earlier, how did -- a disappointing reaction. He said we had hoped for better from the White House. And he said that he and the congressmen, they don't want to draw conclusions. They'd much rather have the White House release the information they're seeking. So A, your reaction to Congressman Waxman's approach and his comments. And B, why not release, to put any questions to rest, about if Enron had undue influence over the White House energy...
FLEISCHER: OK. On the second point, there's nothing new here.
On first point, Congressman Waxman has produced a study in which he alleges that the energy policy review that was carried out by this administration had provisions in there that somehow uniquely benefited or benefited the Enron Corporation as opposed to the country or to the nation, which is in need of a comprehensive national energy policy.
One of the provisions that Congressman Waxman cited in there is a provision called PUCA, which is a provision which the administration believes should be repealed because it prevents the more efficient operation in the energy market as companies work with each other are able to purchase other electricity companies.
That PUCA measure had been passed previously by House committees in overwhelming bipartisan votes.
So I think that in it alone tells you that there is widespread bipartisan support for it, for good and valid reasons, because it makes economic sense, it makes energy sense, and that's why the president energy's policy recommended it.
The recommendations in the president's energy plan were made because the president and the vice president believe very strongly that they are the best policies to help America more energy independent and to reduce the likelihood, which all Americans have suffered -- many Americans have suffered -- of blackouts and brownouts. We are a nation without a comprehensive energy plan.
The allegation by Congressman Waxman that anything was put in that plan for political purposes is, of itself, a partisan waste of taxpayer money. Taxpayer money needs to be invested in an investigation of criminal wrongdoing. And that's why the president's Department of Justice is reviewing whether or not anybody at Enron or anywhere else engaged in criminal activity. That is a wise, good use of taxpayer money, and the president is dedicated to it.
Taxpayer money will be used to get the Cabinet secretaries to complete the review the president has authorized and to begin to determine how other actions can be taken to protect people so this never happens again and to protect people's pensions and reviewing changes that need to be made in pension laws.
But if others want to pursue politics, if others want to play the blame game, that's their prerogative. It happens in this town from time to time, and it's always a waste of taxpayer money.
QUESTION: You know, they say it's not partisan. That they're just asking questions. But the Vice President's Office revealed there were six meetings between either the vice president or aides on the task force and Enron officials, and so they're just asking for more information about those meetings. Again, to answer the question with Enron...
FLEISCHER: If they're alleging that the PUCA provision, for example, was put in there at the behest of Enron corporation, then why did it enjoy such bipartisan support on Capitol Hill when it was voted on previously by many Democrats? Is Mr. Waxman going to suggest that those Democrats were influenced?
QUESTION: Ari, but all that said, you know the political environment you're operating in, given what's going on with Enron right now. So why take the position -- and even if you're right, that this is presidential prerogative -- why are you appearing in, sort of, taking the same tact that the Clinton administration did on similar issues? Why not fully disclose, put it all out there and have it be resolved once and for all?
FLEISCHER: Well, again, there's nothing new here. The administration is going to continue to pursue this to get to the bottom of any criminal wrongdoing at Enron or anywhere else that could've been involved, and that's through the Department of Justice. The policies review will continue, and the administration will continue to be forthcoming in answering questions and providing information.
But I think everybody has seen the way this town operates. Washington, D.C., must fully investigate what's taking place with Enron. Washington, D.C., must fully move to protect people's pensions.
But if Washington goes down the usual path of partisan fishing expeditions, I think they're going to lose the support of the public. The public wants to know that people here in this town are focused on the wrongdoing where the wrongdoing occurs and not engaging in wasteful fishing expeditions.
QUESTION: I mean, why not, then, just say, "OK, there's no there, let's just put it out here and end this," so that we're not going down...
FLEISCHER: You say, "Why not put it out?" Would you define "it"?
QUESTION: The task force information, the documents they've requested. I mean, why take on the GAO? Why allow this to happen if that's what it's all about is partisan politics?
FLEISCHER: So you're asking now uniquely about the energy review that was taken on by the administration. Is that correct?
FLEISCHER: On that topic, there is a very important principle involved here, and that is the right of the government and all future presidencies, whether they are Democratic or Republican, to conduct reviews, to receive information from constituents, regardless of their party or their background, in a thoughtful and deliberative fashion.
And it has always been the right of people in our country to petition their government, to talk to their government, no matter what their background or who they are.
The suggestion that any contact with the government is somehow sinister and, therefore, it should be examined to determine exactly what conversations did you have with anybody, on any topic, in conducting an energy review, which is a vital policy issue and a legitimate one in the eyes of, I think, Democrats and Republicans alike, is a principle that has big implications beyond what we're talking about today. The White House is keenly aware of the political demands from some. But there are also principles involved in having a government that is able to thoughtfully, fully and deliberately gather information from all types of concerned Americans.
QUESTION: And at what point is that principle outweighed by the need to reassure the public that everything has gone on the up and up?
FLEISCHER: I think the public is very uneasy about what happened with Enron, and they want it investigated, and it will be.
This Justice Department has announced a criminal investigation of Enron, and that will be pursued fully.
I think the public is very uneasy about their pensions. The public wants to know if what happened to Enron can happen to them. People who work in other companies who have pensions worry about their 401(k)s, properly so, and the president directed a review of the Cabinet secretaries to see if anything could change.
I really think the public does not share the judgment that there is somehow some political malfeasance here. I think the public has heard that cry from politicians in Washington, where politicians turn to partisanship, one-party investigations, the blame game.
What they have seen in the Bush administration is, whether it was former Clinton Treasury Secretary Robert Rubin or Ken Lay ask for something similar, this administration did the right thing, for the right reasons, because they acted on the basis of policy.
QUESTION: But if the public were to be reassured that nothing that happened behind closed doors in the meetings of the energy policy deliberative committee, whether it was with Enron officials or the officials of any other public company, wouldn't that simplify your job of reassuring the public that nothing untoward happened?
FLEISCHER: No, because I think really you're asking to prove a negative. And I remind you that as part of what is going on, the Department of Justice is investigating from a criminal point of view, from a wrongdoing point of view, so the reviews are being done. And if there were to be something, there is an avenue that people could look into, that it's a thoughtful, deliberative government angle. Nothing like that has taken place here.
So the answer is, to the release, nothing new. You're asking for us to prove a negative, and that's a road that we're not traveling.
FLEISCHER: ... nothing new. That's what we've always indicated. We'll stand on that principle.
QUESTION: That's actually what I want to ask: There is no way you're going to bend from it, you guys have made a final decision and are no longer reviewing the question of whether or not you'll release the records? You won't release them, period, because of what you just outlined? FLEISCHER: There is nothing moving now to do that. That's correct. We will always continue to work with the Congress, and work closely with the Congress. I can't make to you a 100 percent guarantee blanket predictions about all events in life to come, but I can answer your questions faithfully about the status today.
QUESTION: Ari, just to follow-on, are you saying specifically that nothing was put in the energy plan at Enron's request?
FLEISCHER: What was put in the energy plan was put in and need to help address an energy shortage in America, not as a result of a request of any one company or any one person. It was done because it was the right policy for the country.
In fact, if you really want to take a look at some things. Some of the things that Enron wanted the most they didn't get, such as a global warming agreement by the United States. The previous administration, of course, did enter into an agreement on global warming, which I think was very pleasing to Enron. This administration took a look at that matter, and on policy grounds decided that would not be the most helpful step to protect America's workers and America's economy.
If you look down the list of things, several things that were sought by Enron that the administration did not include, because it was reviewed for policy reasons. Things that were in there were all put in there because they were the best energy policy for our country that has severe energy problems.
QUESTION: And also, do you deny the assertion that for whatever a provision might have been put in the policy, that one or more of them may uniquely benefit Enron?
FLEISCHER: I don't know about uniquely benefit.
FLEISCHER: I have no idea how to measure. A nation is a nation that has energy needs. And there are regions of the country that have blackouts, that have brownouts. There's a need to move to change the infrastructure in the United States.
Certainly, when California was suffering from the brownouts and the blackouts it had last summer, one of the steps that could have been taken to alleviate California's problems was to make it easier to move energy from region of the country that has surplus to California, which has a deficit. That's designed to help people in California. If anybody else would have benefited as a result, that's tangential. There is a problem that had to be addressed.
QUESTION: At first you said you'd work with Congress. But this is Congressman Waxman's report. He says -- he identifies 17 specific Enron lobbying proposals, which he says ended up in the energy plan that the president rolled out.
Now, are you saying -- you've called this a waste of taxpayers' money, it's completely illegitimate for United States congressmen, in the wake of this gigantic bankruptcy by a company apparently acting in a rogue fashion when it came to accounting and other matters, it's completely illegitimate for that member of Congress to inquiry whether or not this company, which had given a lot of money to the administration, got anything in return?
FLEISCHER: I would never use that word in describing the actions of a member of Congress. What's I've said is that, when you take a look at what the facts are in this case, that we're a nation that does, indeed, have energy problems, particularly last summer when the fears of blackout and brownout were most pronounced, and last winter, as the Clinton administration worked with California officials to begin addressing their energy problems, there is a recognition that the country has an old energy infrastructure which needs to be modernized to help consumers, to help the public.
When you take a look at the things that this administration has done in saying no to things that would have definitely been sought by Enron, such as global warming, such as elimination of carbon dioxide as part of the pollutant strategy in which Enron would have wanted to trade carbon credits, and then you take a look at the things that were included in the energy plan based on policy and based on energy needs, I think the conclusion is that the administration acted on the basis of sound policy, because the country has an energy problem. It put things in and it left things out based on a policy review, again, just as the administration acted when it got a phone call from Bob Rubin or Ken Lay. The reaction was policy.
The review that Mr. Waxman has suggested, which ignores the facts that many of his colleagues to support a repeal of the PUCA provisions that he cited were put in here, is a partisan waste of money.
QUESTION: So the answer, it sounds like, to Congressman Waxman's inquiries is, "We're good. We discharged the public trust in accordance with the highest standards of morality, and trust us on that, and you don't need to look into any of the actual contacts, the content of the conversations between Enron executives and members of the task force, who from Enron actually showed up and talked to members of the task force. You can trust us."
FLEISCHER: I think that the American people want this investigated fully and entirely. They want to know about any criminal wrongdoing. They want to know what can be done to protect their pensions. force and trust us.
FLEISCHER: I think that the American people want this investigated fully and entirely. They want to know about any criminal wrongdoing. They want to know what can be done to protect their pensions.
As I said before and I'll say again, we're pleased to leave the politics to others.
QUESTION: Ari, you're not releasing the documents to the GAO. You said it's the right of the government and all future presidents to conduct reviews in a thoughtful manner. Can you just articulate a little bit why you think that releasing it would hinder that? FLEISCHER: Because I think, on any number of issues in which there are reviews being done by the administration on anything, if the standard was that anybody and everybody who comes in to talk to anybody in the White House, any conversation they have must be released, I think it has the potential to tell people, "Well, you know, I want to go in there and just talk to the government. I want to be able to meet with my congressman, give my thoughts to the congressman," but if a new standard is put in place where to do so would require any conversation, anything that anybody ever says to anybody in government life must be publicly reported, I think people will say, "I'll keep my advice to myself."
It's a principle. It's a principle, and once the principle changes in one case, it makes it easier to change in the next case -- not only for the president.
Now, Congress, of course, has its own rules. People can always go in and see their congressman about any issue, about any grant, about any proposal, about any legislation. And I think if you were to ask those members of Congress, "Will you release every conversation you have, will you release every piece of paper you have about those meetings," they would suggest to you that, absent a compelling reason of a suggestion of wrongdoing, they probably would not.
QUESTION: Have you discovered any new contacts reported by any other governmental agencies between Enron and members of the executive wing? And I have a second question for you.
FLEISCHER: No, I have nothing new to report.
QUESTION: Second question I have for you, this morning, you said that the economic team has discussed among themselves, when the Enron situation started getting (OFF-MIKE)
FLEISCHER: I'm sorry, what's your question?
QUESTION: My question, what did the economic team analyze, as to the...
FLEISCHER: That was put out at length in writing last night. You have the statement from last night that described it all.
QUESTION: And did they inform the president at all of their discussions?
FLEISCHER: No, Larry Lindsey was asked that on CNN's show "Evans, Novak, Hunt and Shields" last Saturday, and he said, no, there was nothing -- no determination made, because as it were, the impact more broadly on other markets was a non-event, there was no impact on other markets.
QUESTION: I know the administration has said that the president wants to make sure that no one ever loses their pension again and 401(k)s, but has the administration done any kind of outreach to the people who have lost their pensions, or has Larry Lindsey or anybody taken a look at what can be done to help those specific people? FLEISCHER: The specific employees of Enron?
FLEISCHER: Yes. Immediately upon a declaration of bankruptcy, the Department of Labor sent a team down to Houston to meet with the Enron employees and to provide them information about benefits that they're entitled to under the law. That was an immediate reaction by a team at the Department of Labor.
QUESTION: Has the president done any outreach or anybody else here to them to follow that?
FLEISCHER: That would be done through the president's agency here which is the Department of Labor.
QUESTION: How strong is the administration's commitment doing this quickly without having the litigants go through long, expensive, legal trials? Can you immediately freeze the assets of those who made millions and somehow channeled the money to those who (inaudible) it?
FLEISCHER: That's all being reviewed, anything of that nature, by the courts. The bankruptcy proceedings are in the hands of the courts and that's where those matters will be resolved.
QUESTION: (OFF-MIKE) speed it up. This could take all three years.
FLEISCHER: I don't think it would be appropriate for the White House to direct a court to speed up or slow down any actions that are legal.
QUESTION: Ari, did Enron come to the administration during its review of the energy policy and make specific proposals about what should be included?
FLEISCHER: I think you need to address that question directly to the people who are involved in the policy. I can't tell you if they did or if they didn't. As you know from the letter that was released by the vice president's office, they were met with on several occasions.
QUESTION: How would we get an answer to that question?
FLEISCHER: Just pose it to the people on the review. I'll try to ask that as well. Yes, sir?
QUESTION: Any doubt on the meeting between President Bush and the Greek Prime Minister Konstandinos last (inaudible) January 10?
FLEISCHER: I think that was reported after the meeting. Yes, there was a readout given by the spokesman for the National Security Council after the meeting took place.
QUESTION: Ari, a number of politicians in both parties are discouraging the contributions that they've received from Enron and in some cases from Arthur Andersen as well contributing them to the fund that's been established to help Enron employees. Is the president going to do that?
FLEISCHER: Well, of course, what many of them are doing is in the context of the current election cycle and the president, of course, running for a presidential office is under a different set of rules from the Congress. The president receives federal matching funds for his race, so if reelection were to become the issue that is all through federal matching funds. No private contributions.
QUESTION: But before he got the matching funds from the general election, he received large amounts of Enron money for the primary candidate.
FLEISCHER: And that's why I drew your attention to the analogy that most Congress members are doing it for their upcoming election.
QUESTION: No. But they're saying that they're doing this, in some cases -- Senator Schumer, for example, said he was doing this to clear the air and to make sure that no one could question his motives. Is the president not interested in...
FLEISCHER: If there's any action on that, I'll report it.
QUESTION: Ari, we hear a lot of stuff from the podium about the political ramifications, the legal ramifications about Enron. The president is a man of means, who's had means. These people who lost their money through Enron have not life savings now. What has the president said, privately to you on a human standpoint, about these people?
FLEISCHER: Well, frankly, what he has said privately is the same thing that he said publicly. If you recall, he was asked that very question at the ranch when General Franks was visiting him in December, and early January. And the president said that his heart goes out to the employees of Houston.
These people who worked for Enron have not only lost their paychecks, but they have lost a considerable amount of their retirement checks. And that's why this is such a serious matter. And that's why the Department of Justice is investigating how it could come to be that people are unsuspecting, had no knowledge, the price dropped, and the blackout is imposed. And the president wants to make sure that any action is taken so that others can be protected so it does not happen to them.
QUESTION: Has he tried to reach out to any of these families or any of these people? I mean, we've heard stories of people having it hard to go to the grocery store to calculate how much money they have to spend.
FLEISCHER: The Department of Labor is the appropriate federal agency that...
QUESTION: But has the president reached out. I mean, did he...
FLEISCHER: Through the Department of Labor. QUESTION: On bioethics. Certainly, the council will have a number of subjects to address. But on the issue of human cloning, what does the president hope that the council can accomplish, given the fact that both he and the council's chairman are opposed to that procedure?
FLEISCHER: Well, the president is looking forward to having the first meeting with his bioethics panel today. And the president is opposed to human cloning.
FLEISCHER: He thinks it is wrong, and he thinks that, as the breakthroughs take place in science and in medicine, which have the potential to cure diseases, it is vital for the nation to have a full understanding and a rich reflection and a discussion of the ethical implications of some of the breakthroughs.
Diseases are going to be cured. People's deepest problems have the potential to be solved that have really haunted many a family. But in so doing, the president thinks it's essential for the fabric of our country to listen to the ethnical considerations, the ethnical reasons that at all times have to guide the progress and the path of science, and that's what the president looks forward to hearing from this commission as they conduct their works.
But make no mistake about it, the president has taken a position on human cloning, he stands by it, he opposes human cloning, and he believes the nation will benefit from a review of a diverse group of ethicists so that all the implications of it can be discussed in a thoughtful fashion.
QUESTION: Is he satisfied there's enough diversity on the panel to have that sort of discussion?
FLEISCHER: He is. He believes that the panel represents that diversity.
QUESTION: Tomorrow, the Republican National Committee is going to elect Governor Racicot as chairman of the committee. Governor Racicot has done some lobbying for Enron. Is the president concerned that this revelation or this connection would taint the Republican Party going into an election year?
QUESTION: What has the president said in private about Ken Lay? Does he still consider him a good friend, and would he take money from him in the future?
FLEISCHER: He was asked that question -- a similar question in the Oval Office. Ken Lay is and was a supporter of the president's. And doesn't matter. A criminal investigation is going to proceed, and the president wants to make sure that that criminal investigation will take itself wherever it needs to go and that justice should be done. And it doesn't matter who was involved, whether they knew the president or didn't know the president. The Department of Justice is undertaking a criminal review.
QUESTION: In 1984 -- seems just like yesterday...
FLEISCHER: What year was that?
QUESTION: Nineteen eighty four.
FLEISCHER: Eighty four.
QUESTION: Walter Mondale, at the Democratic Convention, said that if elected he would raise federal taxes. Don't you see a distinction between that kind of a statement and what we heard from Senator Kennedy yesterday?
FLEISCHER: I thought Senator Kennedy's statement yesterday that he wanted to raise taxes was a echo of something from 16 years ago. It reminded me very much of Walter Mondale's statement at the convention that he would raise taxes.
QUESTION: Let's draw a distinction. As a consequence of getting elected, in 1985 Americans would have seen their federal tax bill go up, assuming Congress would have agreed with Mondale's plan. As a consequence of Congress agreeing to what Senator Kennedy said yesterday, isn't it fair to say that no American would see his current Federal Income Tax liability go up?
FLEISCHER: No. There's no question about it, what the president -- what Senator Kennedy called for yesterday is a tax increase, plain and simple. When the government promises somebody that it'll be more money in your upcoming paycheck, and the government says, "We don't mean it. We're taking that money back from you." That's a tax hike.
QUESTION: Yesterday, the president's budget director made a comment about the need for corporate statesmanship in this country. That was in response to a question he was asked about Enron executives cashing in, you know, a billion dollars of stock while the workers got nothing.
I was wondering whether the White House was thinking about this topic at all, especially since we're in a recession, whether there was a message going to be coming out from the president about the need for chief executives themselves to be an example to, you know, forego salary increases and bonuses and all the other wonderful perks that they get, and not only just to talk about sympathizing with workers, but to require sacrifice among the country's chief executives?
FLEISCHER: Well, one of the things that the president has asked the Department of Labor, Treasury, and Commerce to review as far as what policy changes can be made, learning the lessons of Enron, is to take a particular look at the blackout period that is imposed and to determine whether or not workers should be given an advance notice of a blackout period coming, so they're not just slammed down on and so they can't diversify or sell if they so desire. And the president thinks that the way to help people is to make sure that the people who are punished, through no action, no fault of their own, cannot be put in a similar position. And that's where the president has directed the review.
QUESTION: Ari, after Mr. Lindsey's panel determined that Enron would have low impact on the markets, would did he report that information to beyond the numbers of the Economic Council?
FLEISCHER: I couldn't tell you fully who they reported it to. Larry is on record himself as saying he did not inform that to the president. Again, as Larry said on CNN last Saturday, some five days ago, he said that their review showed that it would not have any broader impact on overall markets. I think he said it was, as it were, a nonevent because it did not have such an impact.
QUESTION: Were those (OFF-MIKE) communications either written, electronic or...
FLEISCHER: No, it didn't say that. The economic team surely talked among themselves.
QUESTION: (OFF-MIKE) report it to the chief of staff, for instance, just to -- did he say this is not going to be a problem?
FLEISCHER: I have no idea if he did or he didn't. I mean, the point of the matter is, as he said, it was a nonevent.
QUESTION: On the meeting of the labor union leaders, is the president ready to discuss with those guys the (OFF-MIKE)
FLEISCHER: Well, I think the president is going there with a certain list of items that he wants to talk about and that includes job creation for America, but it's going to be an open session. I think he's going to hear what's on their minds.
The president and these unions don't agree on every issue. I wouldn't be surprised if some of the union leaders bring up issues with which they disagree with the president. After all, that's the purpose of getting together with them.
The president wants to convince them to agree with him on the issues he believes in. They'll probably want to convince the president to agree with them on their issues. That's why they're having the meeting.
QUESTION: Are you worried that the (inaudible) Enron is going to hurt your ability to get votes on the energy report when it comes up next month since it's going to be at the same time that those hearings are going on on Enron?
FLEISCHER: No, I think the frustration on the Hill about Enron is wisely and properly focused on Enron, on the people who are associated with Enron in terms of the auditing and how it could have happened and on policy reviews.
QUESTION: Has the president questioned the legitimacy claims that Clark Bowers is being held hostage in Afghanistan?
FLEISCHER: Of whom now?
QUESTION: Clark Bowers, the Alabama man (inaudible) claims that he's being held...
FLEISCHER: Yes, the State Department is looking into that. I asked for an update yesterday and the State Department is looking into that. I have not received an update since yesterday.
QUESTION: During his trip to East Asia next month, how hard is the president is going to work with promoting free trade in the region in the interest of creating more jobs in this country?
FLEISCHER: Free trade is always an issue that the president raises when he meets with people, particularly in an area as important economically to the United States as Asia -- as Korea, as Japan, and, interestingly, China, now China being a member of the World Trade Organization. The president views that as an essential to job creation, to growth and to economic health.
I also want to raise, you mentioned Japan, and, of course, there'll be an important conference this weekend led by the United States, the European Union, Saudi Arabia, and Japan, on the reconstruction of Afghanistan. A very important meeting in the future of developing a peaceful and stable Afghanistan. And I think there will be an announcement there about assistance for Afghanistan from a number of these nations to help Afghanistan be free from terror.
QUESTION: (OFF-MIKE) what you said about the release of documents to the GAO. When did the administration decide (inaudible) telling us you are reviewing it.
FLEISCHER: No. There's been no change. The Vice President's Office is the one who has been addressing this issue. There's been no change in that to report.
QUESTION: (OFF-MIKE) still reviewing it or you aren't going to release it?
FLEISCHER: No. There's no change in our status on that.
FLEISCHER: It means that the administration will continue to stand by the principle that I enunciated earlier.
QUESTION: And as you know, frequently, these standoffs are resolved through the principle of comity between the branches that if there is way without harming future -- this administration or future president's right as they see it to candid advice they might be able to share it. GAO specifically requesting the documents seems to be one of the sticking points with the vice president's counsel who says, "GAO doesn't have the statutory authority." Is there some way, perhaps, to work around that if it was a member of Congress, him or herself or committee, rather than the GAO, which seems to be an institution that the vice president...
FLEISCHER: I think there was a similar question that came up earlier in the briefing. And I answered that question in saying that there is a principle here and the administration will continue to adhere to the principle. There is no change. Today, I told you that I can't speak for every action conceivably, could possibly one day ever be taken in the future. But there is no change to be reported today. There is no change today.
QUESTION: Can you clarify something for me? The average American, if they receive a lot of money from someone in support of something, they consider that person a friend. Does President Bush consider Mr. Lay a friend or just someone who donated...
FLEISCHER: There's no question, Ken Lay is and was a supporter, friend, of the president's. But I think it also is no surprise to anybody that companies like Enron, corporations, play both sides of the street.
FLEISCHER: They give money to candidates and politicians in both parties. That's what Enron has done in many cases. And I think the numbers are that either half the Senate and three-quarters of the House, or vice versa, have received funding from Enron.
QUESTION: (OFF-MIKE) you say support a friend, what does that friendship entail?
FLEISCHER: You know, I...
QUESTION: ... range of things, what?
FLEISCHER: Hanging out, that's not something I've really seen President Bush do very much.
It's hard to hang in a bubble.
QUESTION: I mean, well, you know what I'm saying. But what does his friendships entail?
FLEISCHER: I don't know how to make a linear description of friends.
QUESTION: (OFF-MIKE) the speech the president gave last night at the OAS, has he had any reaction from Latin America, the White House or the State Department so far?
FLEISCHER: There's nothing that's crossed my radar screen. That might be something that State has put a closer ear to the ground than I have this morning. QUESTION: (OFF-MIKE) he said, Senate needs to give him free trade authority, permanent trade authority. What is he going to do about it? The House has already approved it. He's had a little fight (ph) with some of the members of Senate, but he ratified (OFF-MIKE) does he still expect to have the votes in the Senate for passage of free trade?
FLEISCHER: Based on the history of the United States Senate, you would expect that the votes would be there in a healthy bipartisan way for free trade to pass. The president hopes that will be the case this year, as well.
HARRIS: And with that White House Press Secretary Ari Fleischer wraps up today's press briefing, and has happened in recent days, particularly yesterday, most of the talk was about Enron, not quite as contentious or as tense, I should say, as it got yesterday.
We are going to bring in our Bill Schneider who is in Washington, our political analyst who has also been listening in, and, Bill are you there?
WILLIAM SCHNEIDER, CNN SR. POLITICAL ANALYST: I am indeed.
HARRIS: Bill, I'm sure you noticed the same thing I had, that again talk went straight to this discussion about these meetings that were held behind closed doors with Vice President Dick Cheney and these various energy industry officials, and chief among them being representatives of Enron, and the meetings that were held there, there was no talk at all or revelation of the notes that came from those meetings, and now we've got Congressman Henry Waxman, who has put together a report saying that there were no number of specific policies that seem to be aimed at benefiting Enron. Let's take a listen to the first comments that we heard about that in this press briefing.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
ARI FLEISCHER, WHITE HOUSE PRESS SECRETARY: The allegations by Congressman Waxman that anything was put in that plan for political purposes is of itself a waste of taxpayer money. Taxpayer money needs to be invested in an investigation of criminal wrongdoing, and that's why the president's Department of Justice is reviewing whether or not anybody at Enron or anywhere else will engage in criminal activity. That is a wise, good use of taxpayer money, and the president is dedicated to that.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
HARRIS: Your thoughts about that?
SCHNEIDER: What they are fishing for is some evidence that the energy task force gave favors to the Enron Corporation, in return for its support of the president and the administration. That is a very tough thing to prove, and what the White House is saying back, is, are you making a criminal allegation? Is there a criminal investigation going on here? Tell me if there is. Well, nobody is saying that, but Congress, the Democrats in Congress particularly, want to know more about the task force deliberation, and the question is, well, if nothing, nobody did anything wrong, why don't they just release their notes and records; they are behaving very suspiciously.
HARRIS: And that is the thing, and this is one of the points that many are bringing up, is that you would think this administration would have seen what is happened with other administrations and seen how they've handled it when something like this come up, basically if you release everything, and particularly if you're saying there's nothing to hide, that you basically could avert all of this hoopla?
SCHNEIDER: They administration seems to be violating the first principal of damage control, which is let all of the worst information out first. They have been reluctant to give information out, about contacts between Enron, the Energy Committee task force, about contacts between Enron officials and executives and members of the administration. It simply raises the question, are they hiding something?
Remember, this is an audience of political reporters. Their mandate is to keep this story moving. Right now, it is mostly a business scandal, and they are looking to see if there is a political thread to the scandal that they can pick up.
HARRIS: Smart play by the White House to take this particular tact, to throw it back on the press and make it seem as though it's the press that's chasing a straw man here or what?
SCHNEIDER: Well, they are hoping that the press will eventually give up on the story if they do not think they will get anything, but as long as the administration appears to be hiding something, there is the suspicion of a cover-up, and believe me, the press is not going to let this go. They know what the procedures are in a Washington scandal. As long as the administration seems to be hiding something, the press is going to say, what are you covering up? And in the end, scandal after scandal shows all of the information eventually does get out, even if's not damaging, it will get out.
HARRIS: I've got to ask you something very quickly, hearkening back to the Travelgate scandal, if you will, with the Clinton administration. The first talk we heard about coming from the White House was this principle, talk about the principle of the president being able to keep these things that are called the executive privilege. Hearing the same thing now on the particular matter, do we know whether or not there is any precedent in the Bush records to see if he is being consistent on this?
SCHNEIDER: I don't know about any specific precedent here, but I know that the notion of executive privilege is a very hard one to sell politically in this country, particularly when you have a tug-of-war between the president, not just in the press and the Congress, but the Congress is an equal branch of government. They demand the right to know what went on. In this case, the records are being demanded by Congress, not just by the press. HARRIS: Exactly. Bill Schneider, thanks much. Appreciate it.
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