Press Briefing by Mike McCurry

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William J. Clinton

The Briefing Room

11:11 A.M. EST

MR. MCCURRY: Let me start by saying that the Justice Department has now concluded that the California civil rights initiative is unconstitutional under U.S. Supreme Court precedent, and they will be participating in the current California litigation arising out of Proposition 209, in support of that position, in support of the plaintiff’s case. Now, they’re going to have to decide when best to enter the case. There were recent arguments on the motion to grant a preliminary injunction, but the Justice Department will be reviewing the most timely way for them to enter the case. The White House Legal Counsel, of course, is supportive and the President is supportive of the Department’s decision to enter the case.

Q: Friend of the court?

Q: On what grounds is it unconstitutional?

MR. MCCURRY: It arises out of the arguments related to the nature of discrimination denying an identified group — in this case, women and minorities — access to a process that would be available to other identified groups, i.e., veterans, students of alumni, athletes, access to, obviously, the public education system in the state. But I’ll leave the very carefully drawn constitutional argument which was reviewed very carefully at the Department — and, of course, was of great interest to the constitutional law professor who works here at the Oval Office — I’ll leave it to the Department to talk further about the grounds upon which they will enter the case and the argument they’ll make.

Q: So they’ll be entering a — what is it called — a friend of the court brief?

MR. MCCURRY: No, this is not amicus, they will actually intervene on behalf of the plaintiffs themselves. So they will formally enter the case.

Q: The President was briefed on it?

MR. MCCURRY: The President has been following it very carefully, had been briefed on their deliberations; had said if they found merit — a meritorious constitutional argument to make he would certainly, given his strong opposition to Prop 209, he would encourage them to enter the case, which they’ve now decided to do.

Q: Could you just define what you mean by enter the case or intervene?

MR. MCCURRY: Well, the United States government can, when they express an interest on behalf of the United States government, can enter a case on behalf of a plaintiff — way in which

the government frequently participates in litigation in which there is a significant national concern that arises.

Q: They are now or plan to?

MR. MCCURRY: I don’t know legally — why don’t you ask the Justice Department to describe the legal status. It’s referred to as an intervention.

Q: Was there any concern on the President’s part that by entering the case he might be spurning the will of California voters who decided this was a good idea?

MR. MCCURRY: Of course, because there is always strong preference that goes to the will of the people. However, if a significant overriding constitutional concern presents itself, the President as the nation’s chief constitutional officer has to act to defend the Constitution, which is clearly the judgment that is made in this case.

Now, the people of California were well aware of the President’s opposition to Prop 209. He actively campaigned against it during the closing days of the campaign. So, of course, his position was well-known. But it’s a stricter construction of an argument to say, though, you believe that the action is unconstitutional.

Q: To what extent does the legal opinion reflect the President’s political opinion?

MR. MCCURRY: Well, the President has taken a political course — political position, and because of that I think there was a strong concern on the part of the Justice Department that they reflect the President’s views in their deliberations on whether to enter the case. But, of course, they have to make that on very sound legal basis as well, and they made a very meticulous review of the constitutional issues.

Q: How does the Justice Department equate preferences for veterans, which is an earned thing, with things that are biological, such as race and gender?

MR. MCCURRY: That’s not the issue. The issue is whether you deny access to a process — in this case, ones that effect public institutions — on the grounds of being a member of a specific group.

I suggest you contact the Department and get a better look at the argument. The ACLU, of course, other parties have also entered on behalf of the plaintiffs. The nature of the constitutional argument is an interesting one. They reply upon a 1982 that arises out of a similar initiative effort in the state of Washington, and that’s the precedent that is referred to in some of the briefs so far in the case. But it’s an elaborate enough argument that I’d really like for you to look at the whole argument.

Q: What was clarified between last week when you had this same basis to make this decision, and this week?

MR. MCCURRY: The Acting Solicitor General Walter Dellinger wanted to make absolutely certain that the case that would be presented on behalf of the government was a strong one. And he wanted more time to make a more complete review of the arguments that would be presented by the Department in court, and the President thought it was very much warranted for him to take that time until he was satisfied with the nature of the argument. He is, the Attorney General is and, of course, the President now is, too.

Q: Was there any political consideration in not intervening before the election?

MR. MCCURRY: Before?

Q: Could not the government have intervened before the presidential election?

MR. MCCURRY: No, no, the litigation arose after passage of the proposition itself. The President, in a sense, intervened politically because he stated his position and encouraged California voters to oppose it.

Q: Can you sum up the President’s philosophical objection to CCRI as opposed to the legal-constitutional argument that Justice is making?

MR. MCCURRY: Well, the principal one is that on the grounds of how it treats affirmative action programs. They would not, as the President suggests, remain available as a tool to address persistent discrimination in our society. In a shorthand formula in the President’s phrasing, rather than mending what’s wrong with the affirmative action programs that exist, this has the effect of abolishing affirmative action. And the President believes that we need to continue to have that as a tool to remedy discrimination in our society, for all the reasons that he has set forth on many occasions. The specific constitutional argument here is about access by individual members of a group to a process that is available to other groups. And that’s the constitutional issue that arises.

Q: What about Peru, Mike? Anything new —

MR. MCCURRY: I don’t have anything new on that. I think some of you know that the President has corresponded — has exchanged correspondence with President Fujimori just to reassure each other that they are in close contact and that their governments are in close contact as the government of Peru addresses the situation. The President welcomed the letter from President Fujimori and knows that the government of Peru is placing great care and attention to the handling of this crisis which, of course, we hope is resolved without violence.

Q: Mike, what are the guidelines for access to the President and to the Residence, other sensitive areas here for political donors and other guests? Is there anything in writing? Are there any specific guidelines that have now been set forth?

MR. MCCURRY: There’s nothing that’s specifically in writing, but it’s safe to say that in February of 1996, they were not scrupulous or strict enough. What happens typically and what happened during the course of 1996 is that the Democratic National Committee in the midst of the campaign year would often work with our political affairs staff to establish a guest list for certain events. Those were checked, but they were often just checked in a fashion that would not lead to a complete review of certain individuals who might be attending certain events.

Q: Does the DNC still have this kind of power, if you will, to submit lists here and —

MR. MCCURRY: Of course, they assist — particularly this time of the year, during the holiday season, they assist in preparing lists and guest lists. But I would say that it is safe to assume that since October when we identified certain shortcomings in a variety of procedures — and the DNC, I think, was very candid in acknowledging those shortcomings — once that happened, a great deal more care and attention has gone into screening list.

Q: I’m assuming you’re referring to Mr. Trie’s guest. Could you just explain what kind of guests you want to screen out? I mean, and why was his presence inappropriate?

MR. MCCURRY: In this particular case, Mr. Trie apparently brought with him as a guest an individual who would not have been qualified to be a donor to the President’s campaign or to the Democratic National Committee. And it is an individual who is chairman of an entity in China that is involved in investment and trade activity that, because of the structure of the economy in China, has some direct relationship to the government — in short, not the type of individual that would be appropriate to include in a guest list for this type of an event.

Q: But I guess I’m still a little confused. You’re saying that because it was a fundraising event you didn’t want anybody there who couldn’t be a donor? Or was there —

MR. MCCURRY: Well, it concerns more than that. That would be a concern, but another concern is we have a very correct and established way by which we would have contact with those who have an economic interest in the polices of the government of the People’s Republic. This is not the way we would conduct that type of dialogue.

Now, apparently, according to some who were present — this has been reported in at least one newspaper — there was not much dialogue with the gentlemen in question because he didn’t say much. And that’s the President’s recollection as well. But in any event, it would not be the kind of person that would be included in this kind of event.

Q: Mike, just to be more specific about that —

Q: Did he have any influence on policy?

Q: — what kind of conversation exactly did they have? Have you established that? You said he didn’t say much, but —

MR. MCCURRY: Well, the President doesn’t have any recollection of having any conversation or having — he doesn’t have any recollection of this individual having participated in the discussion at the event. Typically at these events, the President talks about his concerns, talks about his program and then people around the room ask questions and they have some type of dialogue. He does not recall this gentlemen having had anything to say at this session. But he does have specific recollection of some of the other people who were present having participated. But in this case, he doesn’t recall this guy saying anything.

Q: Well, Mike, you say that measures have been tightened, have been altered since that time. Does that square with Mr. Trie’s invitation, fairly recent, within the past week and a half or so, to this holiday party, or would those stricter examinations not have applied to him?

MR. MCCURRY: We covered this the other day. I would not assume automatically that he would have been excluded. I wouldn’t automatically assume he would have been excluded from a guest list.

Q: So, Mike, what does the White House do now? Does it scold Mr. Trie or people like this who violate the rules that you have now decided were violated?

MR. MCCURRY: No, we just take greater care to ensure that the people who are here at the White House, especially who are here as the guest of someone else, we try to do that with some greater care. But at a time, especially this time of year in which there are many, many guests coming here, we don’t do that completely. We don’t know who many of you brought as your guests to the press receptions we had here in the last couple of nights.

Q: We all brought arms dealers, actually. (Laughter.)

MR. MCCURRY: So we can’t — I don’t want to suggest –I cannot suggest to you and I won’t suggest to you that we can do complete background checks on every person who walks in the door here, because that’s not appropriate.

Q: But nobody calls Mr. Trie and says, Charlie, are you crazy? What did you bring this guy here for? You must know better.

MR. MCCURRY: Well, suffice to say that’s probably a sentiment that many people have. I don’t know whether that’s been expressed directly to him.

Q: Mike, is the President concerned about the serious differences the Japanese government expressed between their position and the Peruvians’ position on how to deal with the hostage crisis, and that perhaps the Japanese government might be more willing to compromise or provide financial incentive for resolution?

MR. MCCURRY: We have close contacts with both governments. I think it’s best for the United States government to refrain from commentary on the discussions that are underway. The President, as he told you yesterday, believes it’s not helpful to have a lot of public discussion about what is a very sensitive matter. And what we are doing is to make sure that we are in a position to be supportive of the government of Peru as they conduct these discussions.

Q: Mike, when did you discover that the Chinese gentleman had in fact been here, and particularly, not so much the investment company, but that he was also head of the arms company that’s owned by the Chinese military?

MR. MCCURRY: We generally became aware of it here at the White House when the Washington Post began making inquiries about it and we began looking into it.

Q: What’s the impact on national security policy? I mean, we’ve had an ongoing problem with weapons sale from China to developing countries. He’s head of a company that sells missiles. The visit came one week after China sold ship-to-ship missiles to Iran. I mean, are we confusing them?

MR. MCCURRY: Absolutely no indication that his visit here was related at all to the concerns we have on proliferation issues.

Q: I realize that, but what —

MR. MCCURRY: And no indication it had any impact on our ability to deal with the matter or to raise our concerns and deal with it. We do that — in fact, that’s exactly the issue. We do that through a channel that’s well-established through our dialogue with the People’s Republic. There are other ways in which we address our proliferation concerns. The President wouldn’t consider addressing matters of sensitive national security in a session such as that.

Q: I mean does it confuse the Chinese government?

MR. MCCURRY: Say again?

Q: Does it confuse the Chinese government? I mean, on one hand we’re saying, don’t do this; on the other hand, we’re inviting them to the White House.

MR. MCCURRY: We have been very direct and less than oblique in our attention to those issues and the kind of dialogue we have with their officials.

Q: Why did he bring him here?

MR. MCCURRY: I don’t know. He came, apparently, as a guest of Mr. Trie and I’m not aware of why Mr. Trie may have brought him as a guest.

Q: It has been reported that the Delta forces have been — a troop of the Delta forces have been dispatched to Panama. Is this in relation to the terrorist attacks — to terrorist hostage situation in Peru?

MR. MCCURRY: I don’t talk about force deployments here.

Q: Mike, can you tell us what the White House is doing to comply with the subpoenas, Justice Department subpoenas?

MR. MCCURRY: The Justice Department, I think as most of you know, had been asked by the Attorney General through the Public Integrity section at the Justice Department to review these matters. She announced that some time ago. They have been doing that, have been following up, making requests of a variety of entities including the White House. Congressional committees have also been making inquiries of the White House.

The White House Legal Counsel has assembled the various requests for documents that we’ve had and has sent around advisories to all the various departments in the White House to make a thorough and complete search for documentation including electronic records and phone messages and all the things normally included in that type of request, pursuant to the various document requests we’ve got from Congress and from the Justice Department.

That’s in process now. It’s supposed to be concluded some time early next week. The Counsel’s Office will then review what they have and respond to the various inquiries they have received.

Q: So you actually transmit this stuff — you actually hand this stuff over on Monday or is that a deadline for —

MR. MCCURRY: That’s the deadline that’s being given to people in the White House who need to look through their records and respond to the Legal Counsel.

Q: Two questions regarding this. First of all, you apparently have spoken with the President about Mr. Huang’s appearance here. Was he — could you tell us a little bit about his reaction when he found out who this man was and how he had come in?

MR. MCCURRY: He was mystified and wondered why he had been at that session — was surprised to learn of the individual’s identity.

Q: Was he displeased? Was he —

MR. MCCURRY: Oh, he’s very displeased by a lot having to do with this matter, generally.

Q: And, Mike, you had mentioned that two dozen names have been given to the White House so people that are questionable who had access to the White House —

MR. MCCURRY: No, no, I didn’t say anything of the sort.

Q: But under subpoena, had a list of two dozen names.

MR. MCCURRY: Yes, there are about two dozen people identified and I think they are well — they are known to those of you who have read newspaper clippings since October about matters related to financial contributions.

Q: — White House officials?

MR. MCCURRY: Say again, Peter.

Q: Mike, how has the President’s displeasure manifested itself? Has he said, tighten things up or —

MR. MCCURRY: Well, for some time he has said that we have to — you know, going back to the period in October when many of these matters arose publicly, he made it very clear to the DNC and to people at the White House that they had to make sure that they followed the types of procedures that he would expect and did expect to be in place — in fact, thought were in place.

Q: Has anybody been disciplined or have there been any staff changes because of this?

MR. MCCURRY: Well, I’m not going to go into that, but there are changes that are being made and changes that will be made and you know about that.

Q: Before wasn’t it — it was basically a Secret Service check on whether there were any criminal records, right?

MR. MCCURRY: Well, the Secret Service is responsible for protecting the President and they do take some steps to do that with people, but they are not — they don’t clear people in or vet people for appointments with the President. They attend to their duties consistent with their mandate, which is to protect the President’s security.

Q: And now there will be someone looking into the guest list into other terms?

MR. MCCURRY: There will be more attention and care paid to questions like who happened to be on guest lists and what’s their purpose in being there, particularly for gatherings of this sort, what — why would someone, what’s the purpose someone might have in bringing another guest in. This is not only because of this event, but because we’ve seen now a series of things that suggest that some people brought friends or associates here with them to the White House for purposes that might not be consistent with what the President would expect of those who are guests at the White House.

Q: Specifically, who has the President assigned to review these and take more care?

MR. MCCURRY: He quite some time ago asked Leon Panetta to make sure that we had procedures in place, and they have been doing that and reviewing that.

Q: Who is going to go over the list to make sure that this doesn’t happen again?

MR. MCCURRY: Well, it depends on the type of event. If it’s a DNC-sponsored event our political affairs section will attend to that as they had been, but they will do that with greater care and attention, as they say.

Q: Was the knowledge of Mr. Trie bringing the Chinese official here — were you aware of that before you invited Mr. Trie back for the reception recently?

MR. MCCURRY: Not to my knowledge, no.

Q: Is he still welcome at the White House, Mr. Trie?

MR. MCCURRY: Mr. Trie? Well, the President will and has — would describe him as a friend and as someone that he has known going back to his days in Little Rock.

Q: Yes, but would you invite him to come — events right now?

MR. MCCURRY: It depends on what kind of event. As a friend, he might be invited to social occasions, but as someone participating in a political meeting or a fundraising related meeting, I have to imagine he probably would not be invited.

Q: Has he been here for purely social occasions?

MR. MCCURRY: He’s been here for — I think Lanny Davis can help you — he’s been here on a number of occasions for a variety of purposes. And he can detail those for you.

Q: — nothing to do with fundraising or —

MR. MCCURRY: That’s correct.

Q: — the Asia trade policy?

MR. MCCURRY: Correct. There were times in which he was here mostly in a social capacity to visit friends.

Q: I gather your concern is that people are using the White House for their own business interests.

MR. MCCURRY: Yes, we would be very concerned for people to come here and use the graciousness of the President’s hospitality for commercial purposes, of course.

Q: How can you stop that?

MR. MCCURRY: Well, it’s difficult. And I imagine that’s happened in the — I imagine that is not an uncommon practice in past administrations. But in this particular case, it’s one that causes the President concern and we’re looking to do what we can do to assure that we know who’s going to be here at the White House and for what purpose they will be here. But you can’t — there’s nothing that is — there is — it is hard to have a system that is 100 percent perfect in preventing people from taking advantage.

Q: When you say that more care and attention would be paid to the guest list, you’re talking about at a staff level as opposed to Secret Service doing that, right?

MR. MCCURRY: Yes, in the end. I don’t — the Secret Service can speak for itself, but it’s not their job or responsibility to protect the President from embarrassment. It’s their job to protect him from danger. And there’s a difference and they need to — they do their job very, very well. We just need to do our job better.

Q: But isn’t it a risk — you would sort of almost have to assume the political embarrassment when you have people who can bring a guest. It would be very difficult to say you can’t bring this person, wouldn’t it?

MR. MCCURRY: That is a problem. We’ve had literally thousands of people through the White House in the last several days. And people have come for parties and for receptions and for dinners. The President and the First Lady want it that way because they are sociable people and they believe this is a house that belongs to all the American people. So you can’t have a 100 percent perfect situation. We didn’t run background checks on all of your guests, I assure you. Okay, so we can’t know everyone.

Q: Mike, there is also a report that, apparently, this company, the arms dealer company was involved in a sting operation and eventually implicated in gun smuggling. Now, is that correct?

MR. MCCURRY: Well, there are public reports that you can find, that are available to you about that matter. I really can’t speak to that because it’s more appropriate for the Justice Department to talk about that.

Q: Mr. McCurry, if Cuban President Fidel Castro would become involved in the mediation with the rebels and the Peruvian government, would the American advisors remain involved in the negotiations?

MR. MCCURRY: Well, again, we are not advisors to the discussions that are underway. We are following them carefully. I’m not going to comment on the government of Peru’s effort to resolve a crisis. They are doing that. The less that we say about that the better the chances that this might be peacefully and successfully resolved.

Q: On the personnel topic, is Fetig being fired? (Laughter.)

MR. MCCURRY: Jimmy, my boy, arise. This is a —

Q: If he brings a Lockheed official here will you — (Laughter.)

MR. MCCURRY: It’s a question that allows me, I think, on behalf of everyone on this room, your side and my side, to thank Colonel James Fetig for the service he has done at the NSC press staff. He has been an exemplar of what public service is about. You know, we all are in the business of searching for the truth, and sometimes the search can be a little bit difficult. But Jim, throughout his career, especially at the Pentagon, has been the kind of person whose commitment to getting the truth for those who must report the truth has been exemplary. And he is a very fine officer in the United States military, one that we will miss both personally and professionally. (Applause.)

You could probably say the same for the rest of the peanut gallery here, too.

THE PRESS: Thank you.

MR. MCCURRY: Thank you. We’ll see you at noon.

END 11:36 A.M. EST