White House Briefing, January 9
09 January 2006
Iraq, Vice President Cheney, Supreme Court, Congressman DeLay, Puerto Rico, Israel, North Korea
White House press secretary Scott McClellan briefed the press January 9.
Following is the transcript of the White House briefing:
THE WHITE HOUSE
Office of the Press Secretary
January 9, 2006
PRESS BRIEFING BY SCOTT McCLELLAN
-- Vice President Cheney
-- Alito nomination
-- Congressman DeLay
-- Puerto Rico
-- North Korea
The White House
Office of the Press Secretary
January 9, 2006
PRESS BRIEFING BY SCOTT McCLELLAN
James S. Brady Briefing Room
12:17 P.M. EST
MR. MCCLELLAN: Good afternoon, everyone. I want to begin with a preview of tomorrow's remarks to the Veterans of Foreign Wars here in Washington, D.C.
The remarks tomorrow are part of a continuing -- well, I would say the remarks are part of continuing the dialogue the President initiated with the American people in December. In those series of speeches, as you recall, the President talked in greater detail about our strategy for victory in Iraq. He gave a series of speeches in December that described the nature of the enemy we face, our strategy to defeat them and how we have adapted and learned from experience.
Tomorrow the President will also discuss what to expect in Iraq in 2006 in key areas. Two thousand six will be a time of more testing and sacrifice. The terrorists and Saddam loyalists want to continue to try to derail the transition to democracy. They are fighting progress. They target innocent civilians; they target the infrastructure; they target democratic institutions that are taking hold in Iraq. The elections were a stinging defeat for the terrorists; they continue to be marginalized -- more and more people are choosing the political process -- and they will not succeed.
The President will also talk about how 2006 will be a time of more progress toward a democratic Iraq that can defend itself, that will not become a safe haven for terrorists, and that will serve as an example of freedom for a troubled region. He will focus on three key areas and discuss the expectations in each of those areas.
He will talk about the political process and consolidating democratic gains of the past year in helping to build the democratic institutions for a lasting democracy. He will talk about the security process and the importance of staying on the defensive against terrorists and Saddam loyalists, and continuing to strengthen the capability of the Iraqi security forces, so that they can take control of more territory and take the lead more and more in the fight. And he will also talk about the reconstruction efforts and our continuing efforts to support the Iraqis as they build a modern economic system. And he will talk about how in each of these areas we have learned from experience; we're fixing what's not working and we're adapting as necessary to complete the mission.
In the area of the security forces, I think one thing the President will do is talk about how there has been much progress made on the training of the Iraqi army. In terms of the Iraqi police, there's going to be more of a focus on the Iraqi police in 2006 and making sure that we're improving the training and capability of the police forces and expanding those police forces.
And I think one area that the President will talk about is the steps that we're taking to make sure that the police forces adhere to the highest ethical standards. We've seen some recent news reports of a few, or some, who have engaged in abuses of the prison system. And I think the President will talk about the training that we are providing to the police forces, and human rights, and rule of law. And he will talk about how we're increasing the forces, too.
And in terms of another area, the international community, the President will call on the international community to fulfill its commitments quickly. There's been more than $13 billion pledged by the international community. There are a number of countries that have not fulfilled those commitments. And they need to be fulfilled to help the Iraqi people move forward. Debt relief -- some countries have moved forward on providing a hundred percent debt relief; there are others that can do more, as well.
And, finally, as I mentioned, the President will be speaking to the Veterans of Foreign Wars -- their leadership and members
-- here in Washington. And last week, the VFW passed a resolution that said, "It is critical that the U.S. succeed in Iraq, which will result in stability and security in the region." The President appreciates their recognition of the stakes involved and understanding of how important it is to help lay the foundations of peace in a troubled region of the world.
And with that, I will be glad to go to your questions.
QUESTION: Scott, does the President think that it would be a good idea for Vice President Cheney to release his medical records to clear up any questions about his health?
MR. McCLELLAN: Well, I think that the President believes that the Vice President's Office has, over the course of the last few years, provided the appropriate information regarding his health.
Q: So the appropriate information, you don't think it requires a more complete disclosure, like the President does, with a -- when he has his health, physical -- that he gives a pretty elaborate read-out?
MR. McCLELLAN: I think the Vice President's Office takes the appropriate steps to provide information to the public about his health, and his doctors do, as well, through the Vice President's Office.
Q: Can you tell us what the pre-existing foot condition is that the Vice President has?
MR. McCLELLAN: Well, the Vice President's Office talked about that last week. And I'm sure if there's more information to share with you, they will do so.
Q: They didn't mention anything specific. It's his --
Q: Well, we don't know what it is.
MR. McCLELLAN: I would encourage you to direct questions such as that to their office, because they check with his doctors and then provide information in an appropriate fashion.
Q: Do you think that the Vice President's Office should disclose what the foot condition is?
MR. McCLELLAN: I think that they're appropriately taking steps to disclose information.
Q: So you have no problem with the way they're handling it?
MR. McCLELLAN: I just indicated that.
Q: Well, Scott, his personal physician, Gary Malakoff, from G.W., back in 2000, said that he'd had several minor occurrences of gout in his foot. Can you tell us if that's the condition?
MR. McCLELLAN: Well, and as I just pointed out, his doctors and the Vice President's Office provide information in an appropriate way. And I'm sure that they will continue to. I would direct those questions to his office, because what they can do is check with his doctors and check with the Vice President and then provide that information to you all.
Q: But there's a rather large foot secrecy going on here -- (laughter) -- considering the Vice President's left appendage and we're just curious as to --
MR. McCLELLAN: That's very cute, but I think you --
Q: -- it landed him in the hospital this morning --
MR. McCLELLAN: I think there's a significant amount of information that is provided to you all about his health situation over the course of the --
Q: -- what's wrong with --
MR. McCLELLAN: -- last few years.
Q: -- anti-inflammatories which landed him in the hospital.
MR. McCLELLAN: Well, he talked about how Secretary Rumsfeld has been chewing on his -- no, I'm just kidding. (Laughter.)
Q: Do you want to elaborate on that? (Laughter.)
Q: Scott, from this podium -- and the President in his remarks went out of his way to call on Congress to conduct dignified hearings for Judge Alito. And what's implicit in that is somehow that the attacks against Alito, the questions that have been raised prior to this hearing may veer toward the undignified. So what specifically is undignified about the discourse and the questions that have been raised about his record so far?
MR. McCLELLAN: Well, I think you've seen there have been a lot of dishonest attacks and misrepresentations about Judge Alito, primarily from groups that are outside the mainstream. These are groups that want to inject partisan politics into our judiciary, and the President believes that our judiciary should be above partisan politics.
Judge Alito is someone that all Americans can be proud of, and I think the American people want to be proud of. And I think the American people want to be proud of the Senate committee hearings, as well. And so that's why the President has said he hopes that there will be a civil and dignified hearing. There was a civil and dignified hearing, by and large, when it came to the nomination of now-Chief Justice Roberts. And we appreciated the Senate for moving forward in a fair and civil and dignified way. I think all you have to do is --
Q: What is undignified about probing his, A, past political views and prior statements on issues that may be within --
MR. McCLELLAN: I didn't say there was. I didn't say there was. In fact --
Q: Then what's -- you just said that there have been partisan attacks, people are trying to bring political or partisan views into the confirmation process. What's undignified about that? I mean, in other words, it sounds like this is kind of a chilling effect that the President is attempting --
MR. McCLELLAN: No.
Q: -- which is, don't try to rough this guy up, or else we're going to brand you as being somehow, you know, foul-mouthed senators.
MR. McCLELLAN: No. In fact, the Senate has a very important role to play in confirmation hearings --
Q: So what is undignified about the discourse?
MR. McCLELLAN: It will provide an opportunity for a vigorous and healthy debate about our judiciary and the proper role of judges in our judicial system. And the President has simply said that he hopes that the hearings are respectful and civil and dignified.
Q: You're not responding to what has been undignified about the discourse so far.
MR. McCLELLAN: Well, there are some that have tried to raise questions about his integrity. Judge Alito is someone of the highest integrity. He is someone who is widely respected by those who know him best -- not only for his judicial temperament, but for his integrity and his character. And the American Bar Association, in their unanimous -- they gave him its highest rating, unanimously well qualified to serve on the bench. And they said that -- in their language that the nominee, "meets the highest ethical standards of integrity, professional competence and judicial temperament."
Q: Therefore that shouldn't be part of a hearing -- questions about his character and integrity should not be part of his hearing?
MR. McCLELLAN: No, there are some groups that have --
Q: Is that what you're saying, that they shouldn't be asking those questions?
MR. McCLELLAN: No, no, no. There are some groups that have misrepresented facts relating to cases he has decided; there are groups that --
Q: That's fine. Are you saying that that should not be part of a hearing?
MR. McCLELLAN: -- are engaging in dishonest attacks. It should be an honest, open and thorough discussion of his views and how his --
Q: You want to set parameters for what should and shouldn't be asked in his hearings; is that what the President is saying?
MR. McCLELLAN: I'm just using -- no, that's what you're saying. Go ahead, Helen.
Q: I have two questions. One, you speak of a dialogue. It's not a two-way street when the President keeps promoting his own point of view on the war. It's not a dialogue, is it? And, also, the President --
MR. McCLELLAN: I think you're ignoring the fact that the President has been sitting down with bipartisan members of Congress, he's been sitting down with former key administration officials from previous administrations and listening to their views, as well as talking about our strategy that's in place.
Q: But nothing hits home with him, in terms of the opposition.
MR. McCLELLAN: No --
Q: And, also, the President --
MR. McCLELLAN: -- I encourage you to go back and look at exactly what he has said about the opposition. I think there's a difference between --
Q: I thought he gave -- conceded that they had the right to dissent --
MR. McCLELLAN: I imagine this may be one thing he touches on tomorrow. There's a difference between loyal opposition that has a different view, and those who are advocating a defeatist approach that sends the wrong message to our troops and the enemy.
Q: Well, that's your point of view.
MR. McCLELLAN: That's right.
Q: But, also, this morning, he stressed accountability --
MR. McCLELLAN: And the point of view of many others.
Q: -- accountability, and the Vice President has been very candid about his heart condition. What's his foot --
MR. McCLELLAN: I talked about that last week, and you can get more information -- if you have more questions about it, I don't have that information. His office has the information; they can provide you.
Q: You don't know what it is, then?
MR. McCLELLAN: No, I'm very familiar with the Vice President.
Q: Scott, Paul Bremer was interviewed -- I guess it was over the weekend on NBC -- and said that he had sent around a summary from think tanks saying that you needed three-times as many troops to stabilize Iraq as there were. He said he sent a message to Secretary Rumsfeld, heard nothing; told the President about this and his concerns about whether or not there were -- that we needed more troops over there. He said the President said he tried for more foreign troops, but made no mention of increasing the number of American troops. Why would someone like Paul Bremer, who was on the ground --
MR. McCLELLAN: Let me mention --
Q: -- I know he talks about commanders and he listens to commanders --
MR. McCLELLAN: Let me back up and mention a couple of things. First of all, Ambassador Bremer has served this country admirably under extremely difficult circumstances. He is someone who understands the stakes in the war on terrorism and why it is so important that we transform Iraq into a democratic society. It will serve as an example to the rest of the broader Middle East. His experience and observations provide an interesting and vivid perspective of what he observed and what he did in Baghdad after the fall of Saddam Hussein.
The President, as you know, relies on a team of civilian and military and foreign policy advisors who make decisions -- or when he makes decisions about the conduct of the war. Ambassador Bremer, I think, has pointed out that in his book he's providing his perspective based on the role that he played at the time. And we appreciate very much his advice and his commitment that he made to what was an important cause.
Q: But was he not qualified to ask for more troops? Why wouldn't you listen to your most senior civilian on the ground?
MR. McCLELLAN: Because the President has already addressed this question on numerous occasions, Martha. The President believes that the decisions about our troop levels ought to be based on the recommendations of our military commanders who are on the ground in Iraq. They're the ones who are in the best position to say what they need to complete the mission, and the President has always relied upon his military commanders who are on the ground there, implementing our strategy for succeeding in Iraq.
Q: But Paul Bremer was on the ground, too. He was the one who had to help stabilize Iraq, as well as -- and when he saw that --
MR. McCLELLAN: And I just indicated to you that the President makes decisions based on the advice of a team of foreign policy and military advisors. And it's the commanders on the ground who are in the best position to make decisions about our troop levels.
Q: Secretary Rumsfeld didn't respond. It sounds like Paul Bremer doesn't --
MR. McCLELLAN: No, I saw that the Pentagon did respond through his spokesman to this issue.
Q: No, he said in May 2004, when he asked Rumsfeld for more troops that he didn't even get a response. Are you sure you're hearing all the advice you need to hear?
MR. McCLELLAN: You can talk to the Pentagon about that.
Q: Are you sure you're hearing all the advice you need to hear?
MR. McCLELLAN: Well, Ambassador Bremer indicated it in his remarks.
Q: We've had about two dozen American troops killed in Iraq in the past week. Doesn't that undercut your argument that progress is being made there?
MR. McCLELLAN: No. In fact, the President talked about how, as the Iraqi people continue to move forward on the political process and continue to move forward on reconstructing their country, the terrorists and Saddam loyalists will do everything they can to try to derail the transition to democracy. They recognize that the elections in December were a stinging defeat for their ambitions. The Iraqi people showed up in large numbers. Some 70 percent of registered voters in Iraq went back to the polls and said, we defy the terrorists; we want to chart our own future; we want to live in freedom.
The terrorists and Saddam loyalists have failed every step of the way on the political process. They cannot stop democracy from taking root in Iraq. The Iraqi people are determined to show the world that they want what people all across the world want, which is to chart their own future and to live in freedom.
And the President made it very clear in this series of speeches he held over the course of December that there is going to be continued violence as we move forward. That's why we must continue to move forward on our strategy that we have in place to win. We are making important progress, there are difficulties ahead, there are going to be tough days. We've seen a few tough days over the last week. We have lost a number of brave soldiers. We mourn their loss. The Iraqi people have been attacked, a holy shrine has been attacked, other innocent Iraqis have been attacked by the suicide bombers, the terrorists.
The terrorists and Saddam loyalists continue to further isolate themselves from the Iraqi people. They don't represent the Iraqi people. They represent their own ambitions. And we saw the other day in a videotape, from the number two leader of al Qaeda, once again that the terrorists understand that Iraq is the central front in the war on terrorism, and that the stakes are very high. The stakes are high in Iraq. That's why it's so important that we complete the mission. Withdrawal would be a disaster.
Q: What can you tell us about contacts that have been made with Iraqi insurgency groups?
MR. McCLELLAN: Well, I would point out that we have talked about this before. We're not talking with Zarqawi or other terrorists; we're not talking with Saddam loyalists, those who worked for him and want to return back to the previous regime.
But part of our strategy, a critical element of our strategy, is to broaden participation in the political process. We have been reaching out to the rejectionists. As the President outlined last month, there are really three categories for defining the enemy. And pointing out to the rejectionists that the way forward is the political process. That's the way to advance political interest -- not through violence. And you can't have it both ways. You have to make a choice.
And we see more and more that the Iraqi people are choosing freedom and democracy. We have more Sunnis participating in the political process in much larger numbers than they did.
I think it's important to take stock of where we are. Look at where Iraq was a year ago and look at where it is today. There has been tremendous progress, but there are difficulties and challenges that remain, and that's why we must continue to stand with the Iraqi people.
Q: Scott, when you talk about Iraq being an example for the region -- we have a crazy man in Iran who's ready to develop nuclear weapons and blow Israel up. We have --
MR. McCLELLAN: I point out that that, as you said, "crazy man," that he does not represent the people in Iran. The people in Iran want to live in greater freedom, and we support their desire to live in greater freedom.
Q: I mean, in Saudi Arabia, they're exporting a very violent form of the Muslim religion, and they show no signs of stopping. Syria is -- you know, I've talked to Marines, Syria is shooting across their border at our Marines in Iraq. It seems like this good example has to happen sooner rather than later. I mean, what's the timetable for having a --
MR. McCLELLAN: Two thousand five was a year of great advance for democracy in the world. The President began the year by -- in his inaugural address talking about the cause of freedom and the importance of supporting the advance of freedom. And we've even seen in the broader Middle East -- in Afghanistan, where democracy is taking hold, and they're continuing to make significant progress, and elections have been held. We've seen it in Lebanon, where the people there have rejected Syria's interference in their internal affairs. We see great progress being made. We see countries taking steps. They might just be small steps, but they are steps toward a more open and democratic system.
And what Iraq can do is help inspire reformers in places like Syria and Iran. Those who want to live in freedom, we believe -- the President believes very strongly that freedom is a universal right, that all people want to live in freedom. And it's up to those people to determine the type of democracy that meets their culture and their traditions. It won't be based on our own democratic system; it will reflect their own values and traditions and cultures. But there is important progress that has been made, and Iraq can serve as an example and help really transform what is a troubled region of the world.
This is a dangerous region that was a breeding ground for people who hijacked airplanes and flew them into buildings here in Washington and New York City. And we're trying to do -- what we're trying to do is advance freedom for our own safety and security, by laying the foundations of peace for generations to come for our children and grandchildren. And that's why it's so important, what we're working to achieve there in the broader Middle East.
Q: A couple questions on Iran, Scott. One of the things the administration said it did not want to see happen was Iran resuming its uranium enrichment program. That appears to be going forward today. What does that say about the success or lack thereof of the EU 3's negotiations? And what does the U.S. plan to do about it?
MR. McCLELLAN: Well, a couple of things. One, we support the European 3's efforts. We continue to support their efforts. But this is a matter of trust when it comes to Iran, and Iran has shown over the course of the last couple of decades that they cannot be trusted. They have concealed their activities from the international community. They have violated their agreements with the international community. It's time for Iran to come into compliance, to abide by the agreements they made, and to meet the demands of the international community. The international community has spelled out what those demands are.
There is real concern within the international community about Iran's pursuit of nuclear weapons under the guise of a civilian program. And there is a growing majority within the board of governors of the International Atomic Energy Agency that has said it's time for Iran to act in good faith and move forward on the negotiations with the European 3. If they fail to do so, then the option before us would be referral to the Security Council. And there is a growing majority within the international community that is looking at that.
Q: What is the administration's understanding of both Russia and China's position on supporting a referral to the Security Council?
MR. McCLELLAN: Well, we will continue to discuss with all our friends -- discuss with our friends and allies and partners how to move forward to address this issue. This is a serious matter. It's a serious concern. Someone earlier in the briefing pointed out some of the comments that were made by the president in Iran. Their actions and their comments only further underscore why it is so important that the international community not let Iran develop a nuclear weapon.
Q: Why does the administration think China is opposed to that referral?
MR. McCLELLAN: Well, we'll continue to have discussions with others. I'll let China speak for themselves.
Q: One last question if I may?
MR. McCLELLAN: Yes, sure, go ahead.
Q: And insofar as the Iranian government appears now to be recruiting potential Shiite militants from Iraq and training them in Iran, what does the United States plan to do about Iraq?
MR. McCLELLAN: I'm sorry, repeat that? Insofar as training of Iraqis?
Q: There are reports now that the Iranians are training Iraqi Shiite militants in Iran and then shipping them back to Iraq to create violence. What does the administration --
MR. McCLELLAN: I saw a report earlier today. I'm not in a position to verify the authenticity of those reports, but I think when you read those reports, it only further underscores our concerns about the regime in Iran. The regime in Iran continues to move in the wrong direction of the rest of the Middle East. We've made it very clear that countries like Iran and Syria need to play a positive role when it comes to Iraq and they need to change their behavior, and they should not be interfering in the internal affairs of Iraq.
Q: Two questions. One, in the past month or so, President has been making a number of encouraging statements on war on terrorism in Afghanistan and Iraq and elsewhere. The original war on terrorism started from al Qaeda in Afghanistan. And according to President Karzai, terrorism still -- or al Qaeda terrorists are still there and they are trying to destabilize the government. And also now, he made a statement yesterday that he's inviting al Qaeda leaders, including number two and Osama bin Laden, to come from hiding and reconcile. What do you --
MR. McCLELLAN: Who is inviting?
Q: President Karzai. He said, come out of hiding and reconcile. What do you -- what President has --
MR. McCLELLAN: I haven't seen those comments. But Afghanistan is now an ally in the war on terrorism. We have a partner for peace in the broader Middle East. And that's what we're working to build in Iraq, as well, transforming that country into a democracy that will be a partner and an ally in the global war on terrorism.
We continue to go after the al Qaeda leaders. We have captured or brought to justice in other ways a number of top al Qaeda leaders. We continue to pursue others wherever they may be. And we work closely with the government of Afghanistan and others in the region to pursue those terrorists. And one thing that's important to note is that because of the progress that's been made in Afghanistan, on the political front and the security front, now our forces are able to spend more of their energies and focus looking at where those terrorists are and going after them.
NATO is playing more and more of a role within the security of Afghanistan -- that was discussed last week at some length. And so that enables us -- much like in Iraq, too, as Iraqi security forces step forward -- to focus our efforts on going after the terrorists and preventing them from carrying out attacks, and bringing them to justice. There's a lot of operations we've undertaken in both countries to do so, and there have been great successes, many of those you don't often hear about.
Q: I have one on domestic -- on economy.
MR. McCLELLAN: Let me keep going. I'll try to come back. Let me keep going.
Q: Scott, what is the President's reaction to Congressman DeLay's stepping down for good as House majority leader?
MR. McCLELLAN: We respect Congressman DeLay's decision. This was a decision where, clearly, he was putting the interest of the American people, the Congress and the party first. Congressman DeLay is someone we have worked closely with, as well as other leaders in the House, to get things done for the American people and to build a safer and more prosperous America. And we respect his decision.
Q: Was there any signal sent from the White House?
MR. McCLELLAN: No, this was Congressman DeLay's decision.
Q: And, also, could you give us a little bit more detail on how the President was informed this morning of the Vice President's situation?
MR. McCLELLAN: Well, he was over in the residence. His doctor, at the direction of the Chief of Staff, informed him of the Vice President's situation. The Vice President left the hospital this morning and the President spoke to him by phone. And the Vice President indicated he was feeling fine, and the President indicated that he looked forward to seeing him this afternoon. He's scheduled to be coming in for some meetings this afternoon.
Q: Scott, can I just follow on the DeLay part of this?
MR. McCLELLAN: Sure.
Q: I understand the President recognizes this was Congressman DeLay's decision. But, again, as essentially the head of the Republican Party, is he concerned about the Abramoff scandal creating a kind of culture of corruption that is hitting, at this point, mostly Republicans? In that vein, does he think DeLay stepping down is a good thing for the Republican Party to take the lead in trying to clean this up?
MR. McCLELLAN: Well, that speculates about certain things that I don't think you can do, or insinuates certain things. And I don't think you can draw those conclusions. We'll see what happens with regards to the investigation you bring up. But I would point out that Congress has moved forward on a number of important reforms. The President has been someone who has supported campaign finance reform. The President has advocated also, and in fact he's signed into law, some legislation, some common sense campaign finance reforms. The President has long believed in rapid and full disclosure of contributors.
The President also has called for regulating 527 groups. These are groups that are -- have unregulated soft money coming into them, and we don't know where that money is coming from. And the President has called for those to be regulated similar to other political organizations. Now Congress -- the Republican leadership is looking at building on some of the reforms they have put in place. They are looking at ideas. We are open to looking at those ideas. We want to work constructively with Congress to move forward on some reforms. And we will do so.
But I would also point out that there are laws on the books. And those laws need to be enforced, and they need to be followed. And in fact in this instance, the laws are being enforced. Someone is being -- a number of people are being brought to account for the wrongdoing they engaged in by the Department of Justice. And that investigation continues at this point. I think going beyond where it is at this point is pure speculation.
Q: But, politically, was it the right move for DeLay to step down?
MR. McCLELLAN: Well, this was his decision. We respect his decision.
Go ahead. Sorry, on the left. I'll come to you, Mark.
Q: Scott, on the Alito issue, the real concerns that senators have said are really very much in the mainstream. It's the issue of the checks and balances that have been built into this republic. You've got, on the one hand, a White House which is concerned with increasing and enhancing the powers of the presidency, as was indicated most clearly by Vice President Cheney and his comments in the Middle East on Plame. And then they're looking at Judge Alito, how that's going to affect the composition of the Supreme Court in terms of this particular issue: enhancing the powers of the presidency. And, obviously, in his public record, he has made some specific statements to that regard.
MR. McCLELLAN: Relating specifically to executive authority. Some have taken it and misrepresented it beyond that.
Q: Well, there is a concern that there is a move towards an imperial presidency in which the Congress, again, does not, because of the two other branches ganging up to change the nature of the game with regard to the powers of the presidency, then kind of puts Congress in a much different position. And this is --
MR. McCLELLAN: I don't know the concern you base it on. There may be a relatively small number of some on one side of the fence that have those concerns.
Q: Both Senator Leahy and Senator Schumer yesterday indicated that this was their major concern with regard to the Alito hearings. This is what they were going to ask questions about. But also on the Republican side, there is some concern that the powers of the Congress and a Supreme Court with Alito may shift in favor of the presidency, which would change the nature of the (inaudible) in a big way, and that that's a mainstream issue, I'm sure you --
MR. McCLELLAN: Well, I'm sure these are questions that will be asked. I know Judge Alito is looking forward to the hearings. He will be giving a statement later today, and then tomorrow, there will be a lengthy hearing where questions will be asked and he will be providing answers to those questions.
Judge Alito is unquestionably well qualified to serve on our nation's highest court. He is the most experienced nominee to our nation's highest court in the past 70 years. He has 15 years experience serving on the Court of Appeals. And it is a record that is widely respected by those who know him best. He is respected by people on both sides of the aisle for his integrity, for his judicial temperament, and for his philosophy that is based on interpreting the law and not making law from the bench -- looking at our Constitution, looking at the law, and then applying the law.
He is someone who believes very strongly that the role of a judge is to be open-minded, impartial, and fair, and to listen to the arguments, to look at the facts, and then apply the law. And he has a long record of doing that. And there's plenty of experience to look at when it comes to the bench and for senators to consider.
Q: Scott, back to the Vice President, does the latest health problem that he has had, does that not give the President any concern about the Vice President's ability to complete his duties --
MR. McCLELLAN: The Vice President is a very valuable member of this team. He's doing a great job for the American people, and the President looks forward to continuing to work with him to get things done on their behalf.
Q: Scott, a two-part. First, has the U.S. government ever made a formal request of Lebanon, for them to turn over the recently released convicted killer of Navy diver Robert Stethem of Maryland, and if not, why not?
MR. McCLELLAN: I'm sorry, repeat the question.
Q: Has the U.S. government ever made a formal request of Lebanon, for them to turn over the recently released convicted killer of Navy diver Robert Stethem of Maryland?
MR. McCLELLAN: Yes. In fact, the State Department has talked about this. They talked about it a couple of weeks ago, and expressed our position very clearly, and we would continue to take that position. So I'd encourage you to go and look back at the State Department briefing that occurred just a couple of weeks ago on this very matter.
Q: I appreciate that. Do you know of any other time in American history when a President has supported for reelection to his former governorship of a man who is running against his Press Secretary's mother -- (laughter) -- and does he expect you to go with him to Texas when he campaigns for Governor Rick Perry against your mother? (Laughter.)
MR. McCLELLAN: I always enjoy spending time in Texas with the President -- and my mother. (Laughter.)
Q: Are you going to go with him when he's campaigning against your mother?
MR. McCLELLAN: I travel with him almost all the time -- not quite all the time, but most of the time. And in terms of -- I think you're speculating about things at this point; we haven't announced anything on his schedule. But I think my views have been made very clear when it comes to the Texas governor's race.
Q: You've got wonderful assistants. Couldn't they go?
MR. McCLELLAN: They do. They do travel. Sometimes I do stay back.
Q: You're going to campaign against your mother?
MR. McCLELLAN: No, look, of course not, Les. (Laughter.) I already addressed that question last week. She has my full support. She is someone who --
Q: She has your full support?
MR. McCLELLAN: She is someone who cares deeply about the state of Texas. I've made that very clear.
Q: But the President -- what about him? He's not giving your mother his support.
MR. McCLELLAN: I already stated the President's view on the election and that he would be supporting the Republican nominee. Thanks for trying the stir this one up. (Laughter.)
Q: Well, he actually got you to say --
MR. McCLELLAN: I consider one candidate, mother. He considers both candidates that you're referring to, friends.
Q: Thank you, Scott. I have the same topic, but three quick questions.
MR. McCLELLAN: Three? Let's go quick.
Q: Three. I'm getting embarrassed --
MR. McCLELLAN: Let's go quick.
Q: As for the status of Puerto Rico, will the President submit a bill endorsing the (inaudible) recommendations of Puerto Rico? Will he ask the Congress to appropriate funds for both education in Puerto Rico, since he does (inaudible)?
MR. McCLELLAN: I don't know if I've got an additional update beyond what Ruben Barrales, our Director of Intergovernmental Affairs, briefed on a couple of weeks ago, prior to the holidays, in terms of Puerto Rico. I think he made very clear what we have long stated, that we want the will of the Puerto Rican people to be expressed. And if there's anything else, I'll check on that.
Q: Can I just ask the last --
MR. McCLELLAN: Sure, go ahead.
Q: Will the President mention Puerto Rico status and choices in his State of the Union message?
MR. McCLELLAN: It's a little too early to preview the State of the Union at this point.
Q: Scott, is there a particular reason why the Vice President's foot condition is a secret?
MR. McCLELLAN: I think that if you look back, his health -- his doctors and others have discussed his health situation over the last few years. So I don't know that I would agree with the characterization.
Q: But we can't find out from you what the foot condition is, and apparently, not from the Vice President's Office, either.
MR. McCLELLAN: The Vice President's Office is the appropriate place to ask those questions. I don't have more information on it than what they are providing.
Q: Do you know what is wrong with his foot?
MR. McCLELLAN: Again --
Q: Is it some dreaded infectious weird foot disease? (Laughter.)
MR. McCLELLAN: The Vice President's Office has a press office and they'll be glad to talk to you about it. I think the Vice President talked about it in his remarks last week, and it's a pre-existing condition that he talked about.
Q: Is it gout?
MR. McCLELLAN: Go ahead. Go ahead, Connie.
Q: Thank you. On the Middle East, are you in frequent touch with Israeli authorities about the situation there?
MR. McCLELLAN: We stay in close contact with the government of Israel and we have officials that travel there on a fairly regular basis, as well. And I expect we'll be going back there in the near future, too. The State Department might be updating on some of the travel.
Q: Is there any high state of alert regarding possible threats by Israel's enemies? Do you have any warning to --
MR. McCLELLAN: I don't have any additional update beyond what has been made public.
Q: And, finally, on Iran, are you calling for an overthrow of the Iranian leader?
MR. McCLELLAN: I'm sorry?
Q: Are you calling for the overthrow of the Iranian leader?
MR. McCLELLAN: Well, I think -- you've asked this question before and we've stated our position: We stand with the people of Iran who want to live in greater freedom. The President made very clear in a statement what our position is. This is a regime that continues to deny the people their right to live in greater freedom, and that ignores their wishes and pursues nuclear weapons programs and has been a state sponsor of terrorism. I think it is a regime that is out of step with its people. We stand with the people in Iran.
Go ahead, Rick.
Q: Scott, what's the White House assessment on the current stability of the Iranian regime?
MR. McCLELLAN: I'm sorry?
Q: The White House perspective on the current stability --
MR. McCLELLAN: I wouldn't even get into that even if I had information for you.
Q: After Les's question about your mother, this should be easy. (Laughter.) Given the fact that when the North Koreans broke through the seals on their nuclear program roughly three years ago this month, that there was no penalty that they suffered other an engaging in what's been three years of talks, what disincentive do you think that there is to the Iranians at this point to not participate in the kind of --
MR. McCLELLAN: Well, kind of what I touched on, they further isolate themselves from the rest of the international community. A growing majority of the international community is making it clear to Iran that they expect them to come into compliance and abide by their agreements, and to negotiate in good faith about the way forward. Russia has been supportive of trying to provide some assistance to help move the negotiations forward, efforts that we have said could be helpful. And the Iranian regime only further isolates itself while it continues moving in that direction.
Q: But, Scott, you said the same thing three years ago, or the White House did, about the North Koreans when they did something extraordinarily similar, and further isolation does not seem to have greatly affected their lives.
MR. McCLELLAN: Let me point out, when it comes to North Korea and the six-party talks, that there was an agreement on important principles at the last round of talks. Now we want to see progress made on moving forward on those principles. So we're working to confront both threats and both issues, and to move forward on them, working in a multi-lateral way.
And the Europeans have our full support in their efforts to negotiate a way forward and to resolve this in a diplomatic way. We continue to support that. If those negotiations run their course, and Iran does not act in good faith and does not come into compliance, then there is no other option for the international community but to look to the Security Council.
Q: Scott, one last shot at this. Mr. ElBaradei, the head of the IAEA, makes the point that the North Koreans were referred to the Security Council in, I think, 1992 or 1993, and as he puts it so wonderfully, he has yet to hear an answer from them, meaning from the Security Council. Why would that threat be --
MR. McCLELLAN: Well, let's look at where we are compared to where we were when it comes to North Korea. You now have every country in the region saying to North Korea that you need to dismantle your nuclear weapons programs and get rid of any nuclear weapons. You now have a six-party process in place that spells out very clearly what is expected of North Korea. And we expect North Korea to move forward on the principles that they agreed to at the last round of talks. And we'll be continuing to talk about that. So there has been important progress made that was ignored in your question. You have to look at that, and you have to look -- diplomacy sometimes takes time. But we're committed to moving forward and resolving these matters in diplomatic ways. And that's what the President has emphasized on both.
Martha, go ahead.
Q: Just a last one on DeLay. You say you respect his decision, and that he's clearly putting the interests of the party and American people first. The President has said there's a presumption of innocence -- actually he said a lot more than that about innocence. Why is it best for the party and the American people?
MR. McCLELLAN: Well, this is a decision that Congressman DeLay made, and he spelled out his reasons for coming to that decision.
Q: Right, you respect that and you say he's clearly putting the American people and the party first
MR. McCLELLAN: Well, that's why he came to that decision. And he's the one who made that, and I think that it's up to him to talk further about that.
Q: Why do you think he is?
MR. McCLELLAN: What we are -- well, let me back up, too. Congressman DeLay is someone who has been a good ally, someone we have worked closely with to get things done. We work closely with Speaker Hastert and all Republican leaders in the House to move forward on important priorities for the American people. We have accomplished much in the last few years by working together, whether it be tax relief to get out economy growing and creating jobs, or moving forward on modernizing Medicare so that seniors can realize significant savings on their prescription drugs, or moving forward to win the war on terrorism.
We are working closely with the House leadership, and we will continue to work closely with Speaker Hastert, the House leadership, and all Republicans in the House to continue building upon that record of accomplishment. And we appreciate all that Congressman DeLay has done to help us in that regard, and we'll continue to work with him going forward.
Q: Despite that, you wouldn't have wanted to talk him out of it?
MR. McCLELLAN: We were not -- that was his decision. In terms of the leadership and the decisions that will be made there, in terms of who replaces Congressman DeLay, that's a congressional prerogative. We have a record of not getting involved in those matters. That's up for members of Congress to decide, and specifically for Republicans in the House.
Thank you. See you all tomorrow.
END 12:59 P.M. EST
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