Aboard Air Force One
En Route Dayton, Ohio
11:00 A.M. EDT
MR. FLEISCHER: The President today will deliver remarks celebrating our national independence day, and he’ll also commemorate the 100th anniversary of flight. A large portion of his remarks will honor America’s military troops, who are still doing so much around the world, they and their families sacrificing for the good of our country. And the President will thank them and talk about their role that they play around the world.
Then the President will return to the White House and will have no other public events this weekend. That’s what I have for you.
Q: Is there going to be a lid tonight when he gets back, essentially?
MR. FLEISCHER: There will be for today. I can’t guarantee you one for the weekend, however.
Q: Ari, what do you make of Taylor’s agreement to step down?
MR. FLEISHCER: Several points. One, we are aware of the statement. We do not yet have official government confirmation, so we are aware of the reports of the statement. If the reports are accurate, this is an encouraging sign. The President urges Mr. Taylor to back up his encouraging words with deeds so that the stability of the region can be achieved, so that peace can become effective, and so that the lives of the Liberian people in the region can be improved.
Q: What effect does his statement, if it does turn out to be true, have on the President’s decision to send troops as part of a peacekeeping force?
MR. FLEISCHER: Well, the President hopes that his statement is true. He hopes that it will be backed up by deeds that will indeed allow the international community to have a – more of an effective opportunity to create peace and put an end to the brutal way of life that was marked in Liberia. There still is no decision made by the President about commitment of troops. I can inform you that the President has authorized the departure of an assessment team to the region to work with nations in the area, to work with the United Nations on what is needed to establish stability. They’ll work with ECOWAS and they will begin conversations with regional leaders about what is effective to achieve stability.
Q: We already had one of those meetings. How is this different from the people who are already there?
MR. FLEISCHER: People in the ECOWAS meeting, but now an assessment team – which will be sent from the Pentagon that will go over, outside of — in addition to ECOWAS — including ECOWAS, but in addition to ECOWAS — to have meetings, a series of meetings with leaders, not just limited to ECOWAS, but bilateral, to discuss how closely, most effectively to have —
Q: — in Liberia? Or can neighboring – I mean, physically, where will they be?
MR. FLEISCHER: The Pentagon will be the ones who report out exactly where and when they will leave. The Pentagon is in charge of the modalities in the region.
Q: Ari, what do you make of Taylor’s – he seemed to have a condition that he would leave if – he wanted a foreign force to come in first.
MR. FLEISCHER: Well, stability is important, but stability can be impossible to achieve unless Mr. Taylor leaves. And his statement is encouraging, if true. It’s important that he act on it. And if it’s true, the exact timing will be something that gets developed in due course. But the President has said, he needs to leave, leave now, leave quickly and soon — that’s where it stands.
Q: What’s being done to encourage him or to hasten his departure, if anything?
MR. FLEISCHER: Well, I think numerous leaders agree with the President’s statement. I think it’s fair to say that Mr. Taylor has received that message from numerous leaders.
Q: Ari, I know you said the decision hasn’t been made yet, but it does seem, with the kinds of things you and Condi said yesterday, and after sending this assessment team over, that all the mechanisms are being set in place for us to contribute troops. What would keep us from doing it at this point?
MR. FLEISCHER: Certainly, if the President were to decide that troops should be sent, it’s important to do all the proper due diligence that must come first, before troops are sent. So this is part of planning so that when the President says all options are on the table, if – and I still emphasize “if” – the President decides to send troops, the planning is in place so that option can be exercised. That is the context in which the assessment team is going out to have these talks. But the President still has to collect additional information and he still is not guided by any artificial deadlines about his trip to Africa. He’ll make his determination when he has his information and feels that it is the right thing to do, one way or another.
Q: His assessment team will determine if U.S. peacekeepers should go there?
MR. FLEISCHER: No, they will determine — no, no they will determine what the most effective way is to create stability. The President will determine whether troops go over there.
Q: And how long does an assessment team’s work normally take?
MR. FLEISCHER: Check with the Pentagon.
Q: How many people in the assessment team?
MR. FLEISCHER: The Pentagon has received its charge; the Pentagon will now make the determinations of the precise numbers and the timing, and that type of thing. This is what the Pentagon experts do for a living.
Q: Will this be military personnel who make up the assessment team, or civilians?
MR. FLEISCHER: Check with the Pentagon.
Q: I know you said that the President didn’t have any timetable, but does he want to have something done before Monday night?
MR. FLEISCHER: Just as Dr. Rice indicated yesterday, and I just said moments ago, there is no artificial deadline. This will be done based on careful analysis of information, whenever that is doable.
Q: Is it your understanding that Nigeria has offered asylum to Taylor?
MR. FLEISCHER: There was a media report to that effect. I cannot confirm a media report.
Q: Can you give us a sense, is the President having any national security meetings on the plane today, and will he be doing them this weekend at Camp David?
MR. FLEISCHER: The President had a national security meeting prior to his departure this morning.
Q: There’s nothing else today on the plane — how about this weekend?
MR. FLEISCHER: As events warrant —
Q: — right now, over the weekend to look into this further?
MR. FLEISCHER: There’s the usual structure in place, which is a pretty effective, proven procedure. The President will have an intelligence briefing tomorrow morning, as always on Saturdays. And then the phones ring whenever the phones ring.
Q: Do you now believe Saddam Hussein is alive, based on this Al Jazeera audio tape?
MR. FLEISCHER: The United States is aware of the tape. The CIA will do its usual assessments. They have not had an opportunity to begin it yet, as the tape was just released. They will. We don’t know if he’s dead or alive. Regardless, he’s out of power; regardless, there’s a reward out for information that either results in his capture if he’s alive, or proves that he’s dead if he’s dead. Clarity is helpful, but we don’t know if he is dead or alive. This tape will be analyzed. Too soon to say.
Q: Ari, the President looks like he was limping. Is he having further problems or exacerbated problems?
MR. FLEISCHER: I didn’t ask him today. He enjoyed a healthy round of golf yesterday. He’s particularly proud of his 310 yard drive in front of t media on the 18th hole. (Laughter.) I’m led to believe all his previous drives ended up in the woods or some other place. He said it wasn’t the best round of golf he ever played.
Q: What’s wrong with him?
MR. FLEISCHER: Well, he said it wasn’t the best round of golf he ever played. I don’t know. Obviously, he does have the issue of his calf, but he didn’t give me any update this morning.
Q: He was complaining about it a little bit yesterday in the Roosevelt Room — acting up, I guess.
MR. FLEISCHER: Yes, I know he talked to the reporters after the briefing about it. I’m trying to figure out if he’s going to do anything else this weekend. So if you hang out by the South Gate of the White House and you see a man kind of appearing and disappearing, appearing and disappearing on the South Lawn, maybe it’s him.
Q: Ari, CNN was reporting yesterday that Liberian sources were saying that the U.S. had given a 48-hour ultimatum to Charles Taylor. Do you know anything about this?
MR. FLEISCHER: The first time I’ve heard that report.
Q: — directly in negotiations on whether he leaves, how he leaves, where he goes?
MR. FLEISCHER: Secretary Powell is working the diplomacy, and as Dr. Rice said yesterday, there are sensitive talks that are underway. And this is because there are many nations that share the President’s view that t best way to achieve peace and stability in Liberia is for Charles Taylor to leave the country.
Q: — (inaudible) —
MR. FLEISCHER: I leave it like I said it.
Q: Must Taylor submit himself to a war crimes tribunal? Is that the policy of the United States? Do we want to see that happen?
MR. FLEISCHER: First things first; he needs to leave the country.
Q: Can you tell us a little bit about the birthday party today that’s not a surprise anymore?
MR. FLEISCHER: — trying to split me from Mrs. Bush. You were trying to pit message discipline against Ask The White House, the news-breaking hit show. (Laughter.) No, actually, I don’t know much about it.
Q: Who is going to be there?
MR. FLEISCHER: I don’t know much about it. I’ll be on the lawn with my parents and Becki’s parents, waving at the balcony.
Q: Anything special on Sunday that he’s going to do? Or is this it today?
MR. FLEISCHER: Again, nothing unusual. He’s going to be at the White House on Sunday. I don’t know if he’s going to go to church or play more golf. He’s always eligible to do that.
Q: Is there any way to give us a sense of when he might decide on the peacekeepers?
MR. FLEISCHER: No, Steve, as I indicated, he’s collecting the information and he’ll make a determination when he is comfortable with the information that he has received. That’s a process, and it will be when he has had an ample opportunity to review it. It’s an important issue. The commitment of troops is not a matter to be taken lightly. And the President proceeds to make these determinations in a very methodical, deliberate fashion. And it takes some time. And so I understand everybody would like to know how to plan their July 4th weekend, will or won’t it come up over the weekend. I wish I could give people clarity; I cannot. And it will happen on a timetable that the President is comfortable with. That depends on the receipt of information, and he will be careful and methodical. That’s all I can say. Will it happen before the trip? It may. Will it happen during the trip? It may. Will it happen after the trip? It may. So anything is possible. I wish I could be more clear, but that’s th
Q: Thank you.
END 11:;12 A.M. ED