Middle East Trip: Press Briefing by White House Press Secretary Joe Lockhart (12/14/98)

Office of the Press Secretary

For Immediate Release December 14, 1998


The King David Hotel

11:15 P.M. (L)

MR. LOCKHART: Good evening, everyone. Any questions forme?

Q Joe, the President said today that he was willing tomakeevery effort to come up with a reasonable compromise to the impeachment.Whatwould that entail?

MR. LOCKHART: Well, I think that the basis of a compromise wouldbe what most Americans support and many, many members of Congress support,which issome sort of censure proposal that falls short of impeachment. I mean,we'vecertainly been doing a good deal of work in encouraging member-to-memberconversations. There are some other private conversations that have goneon to tryto pursue this. But I think the President signaled a willingness againtoday towork with Congress in some cooperative effort to find something short ofimpeachment -- which is what the public wants.

Q Congressman Shays, who the White House has beencounting onas an anti-impeachment vote, said today that he doesn't have the same level ofconviction about where he stood and that he wants to meet with thePresident,face-to-face. Does that raise concerns that the tide is turning againstyou nowand what are you going to do about Shays?

MR. LOCKHART: Well, I would be careful to read too much into that. I don't worry too much about tides and turning. Congressman Shays has said he'd like to meet with the President to talk about this. The Chief of Staff, John Podesta, has already talked to him today. They are arranging a meeting for as early as Wednesday. It's important to listen to the concerns of Congressman Shays and others as they come up and to work through them.

But I remind you that he also said that he still plansto vote against impeachment -- said if the vote was held today hewould vote against impeachment. But it is important, to the extentthat concerns come up, that members of Congress feel that our legalteam is available to them, that the President is available to them towork through any concerns that come up.

Q Has the President made any calls to lawmakerstoday?

MR. LOCKHART: Not that I'm aware of.

Q How do you see the President spending his time oncehe gets back to the states on Tuesday night, between the start of hisreturn and the start of the House deliberations?

MR. LOCKHART: Well, I don't have a schedule for you,but if it's concerning this matter the President will be available todeal with members if they believe that's what would be constructiveand helpful. Because, as the President said today, it's veryimportant that we find a way to put this fierce partisanship asidefor the good of the country, we find a way to find a compromisethat's in the best interest of this country short of impeachment.

We had a very proper standard set at the beginning ofthis process by Chairman Hyde when he said, I will not go forwardwith impeachment if I can't do it on a bipartisan effort. We foundout that that's not true. And what we found out, in addition, is theleadership in Congress wants to move, go forward, in a way thatguarantees a partisan vote, that guarantees that there isn't a choicefor members, that guarantees that the issue of censor -- somethingthat the overwhelming majority of the American public endorse --cannot be dealt with.

So I think we will continue to work and we will continueto make the case that we need to find some method of moving forward,some compromise that's in the best interest of the country.

Q But, Joe, are you putting together any kind ofproposed compromise or alternative?

MR. LOCKHART: Well, as we've said for a long time, Ithink it's most important for members to work together as far asputting together the specifics of whatever a censure motion orcensure proposal would be. Again, as I said, we're encouragingmember-to-member conversation and there are some private,confidential discussions going on that I don't think would beproductive to get into here.

Q -- understand how you meet the concerns of the lawmakers, whose votes you need here, if they are saying they need some further admission on the President's part that he says, I said what I've said about this. How do you meet their concerns?

MR. LOCKHART: Well, I think there are a wide variety ofconcerns and I'll remind you of some of the questions that have beenput to me, where members had argued until recently that this was allabout attacking the accuser, it wasn't about dealing with the facts.

Well, we dealt with the facts when we made our defense.There were some members who said this is about needing anotherstatement or articulation of contrition. And I think the Presidentdealt straight on with that. So we're going to work very hard tomeet the concerns of the members. We're going to continue to workbecause we believe that we need to find, and the country needs tofind, some compromise short of impeachment.

Q How confident are you that a good censurealternative could overcome the impeachment drive?

MR. LOCKHART: Well, I think -- let me do this first inthe negative sense, which is if censure didn't have a good chance ofpassing on the floor I don't think the House leadership would be sodead-set against it. There is a small group of the Republicanleadership who've made it their mission in life to remove thePresident against, perhaps, the will of the House -- certainlyagainst the will of the American public. And we believe against thebest interests of the future of our country.

So, again, I don't think that they'd be fighting so hardto keep it from coming to the floor if they didn't think that therewas a solid chance of it passing

Q What's the President's mood today? You get askedthat periodically.

MR. LOCKHART: The President today had a historic dayfor any American President, traveling to Gaza, opening the airport,attending the Palestinian meeting where something that was just veryimportant for the peace process was moved forward. So I think thePresident was both pleased and gratified that he was able toparticipate, and was able to participate in moving the peace processforward.

Q Is he tired?

MR. LOCKHART: Well, I think we've had a couple of longdays strung together but, you know, the President, especially on aday like today, has the stamina to keep going and will start earlytomorrow with the meetings that the Secretary of State told youabout.

Q The President said today that a Senate trial wouldnot be in the interest of the country, but is he still willing tostay in office and to fight a trial if it comes to that?

MR. LOCKHART: Well, we believe that there is nothingthat has been put forward to date that reaches the standard of animpeachable offense. What we believe we've seen is a partisaneffort. To begin the process to, as admittedly, some of theRepublican leaders discussed, they don't want to remove thePresident, they just want to punish him.

But the last time I read the Constitution there was noarticle, there was no amendment, there was nothing that said thiscould be used as a punishment mechanism. This is about removing thePresident. But others look forward to a trial in the Senate, but wethink that will be very disruptive, time consuming, it will lead tofurther partisanship rather than less partisanship and we don't thinkthis is the kind of thing we should be putting the country through.

Q Joe, why isn't this important enough for thePresident to cut short his sightseeing and go home early?

MR. LOCKHART: Well, as you know, the President tomorrowmorning will be meeting with the two leaders, so tomorrow is not aday that's devoted to sightseeing. The President thinks, as SandyBerger told you the other day, that this is an important element toround out this trip. This was an important trip -- I believe thatit's demonstrated by the attention it's gotten in the region, by theattention it's gotten back at home. And it's important for thePresident to demonstrate that he's committed to moving the peaceprocess forward.

Q Joe, a couple of times you've said a trial would betime consuming. Trent Lott at one point said that trial could takethree days to three weeks. What's your estimate on it?

MR. LOCKHART: Well, there is very little historicalprecedent, but I doubt there is any historical precedent that says atrial can be done in three days. We have no idea how long it willtake, but I doubt that this is something that can be dispensed withquickly. You are looking at a lot of pieces of information that needto be tested, that need to be examined and cross-examined.

So I think that is optimistic to such a point that I am not sure it is a valid suggestion. And, you know, it's impossible to predict what will happen, but it is impossible to imagine anything good coming out of it. And by their own statements, many of the Republican leaders have talked about the fact that they know that this is not going to pass in the Senate, that this is all about punishing the President or this is all about damaging the President, this is all about hurting the President. And that, frankly, is all about partisanship.

Q Joe, you've said several times that it's in theinterests of the country to find some alternative to impeachment andyou have mentioned that an impeachment trial will take time andcontinue this partisanship that we have seen recently. Are thereother costs to the country if there is an impeachment trial; forinstance, do you see economic consequences?

MR. LOCKHART: Well, again, it's very difficult topredict. I would say that any student of the markets will say thatuncertainty is bad for the markets. I think a Senate trial lendsuncertainty. As far as the economy as a whole, it can't be a goodidea to tie up the Senate for months on end, obviously. But how toquantify that I don't -- it's impossible. And how to quantify thedamage to how the parties work together I think is impossible toquantify but, also impossible to underestimate.

We are at a turning point here, I think, and we need toface this this week, which is will the parties work together likethey have in the past to do very important work -- from balancing thebudget to welfare reform to reducing the budget deficit -- or will wenow turn on an issue where Republicans in a partisan way will movenot in what we believe is in the best interests of the country to tryto remove the President and set us off on a negative and downwardspiral of partisanship over the next two years.

Q So if the trial is going to do such negativedamage, why has it not even crossed the President's mind to considerresigning? In other words, why wouldn't he put the interests of thecountry that is going to be damaged so badly ahead of his own?

MR. LOCKHART: I think that would send a pretty sorrymessage to the American public that, on a partisan basis, a party,because they had the majority, could remove the President onsomething that never reaches the standards of an impeachable offense.That's why.

Q Joe, the President said yesterday that it would be wrong to use undue pressure on legislators that are facing this decision, yet there are press reports saying that White House officials in one case are saying it would be political suicide for a certain member for to this, we'll make sure it is, and other White House officials are saying that the DNC will have a lot of money to spend in the year 2000 to defeat those members. would that constitute undue pressure -- MR. LOCKHART: I think it would, and it's improper. And the President doesn't tolerate anyone -- I think you have one comment from one staffer who doesn't have the sense of somebody who should have a hard pass, and if I knew who it was I would make sure they didn't have one.

But let me finish that, though. I think that goes twoways. I don't think that Republican members, whether they bemoderate, conservative, liberal, tall or short, should feel like ifthey vote yes -- or, excuse me, they vote no on impeachment, they areguaranteed a primary opponent. There are also press reports on thatsubject. I don't think there should be a Republican CommitteeChairman who feels that their future in leadership or chairmanship isat risk. There are also press reports on that.

So I think it's important. I think that you're going tofind -- you may find one example of an aberration at the White Housewhich, frankly, we don't tolerate. I think if you look around andyou talk to members you will find that we've been very up front andvery proper and very deferential in this process. In fact, we havebeen criticized by people in this room for being too deferential.

But I think it's really important that members beallowed, on what probably will be the most important vote in theircareer, to vote their conscience without the threat of retribution,without the threat of political backlash. And I wish there was thecommitment stated from the other side that I have just so stated forthe White House.

Q Joe, could you give us a little sense of themotivations for the decision not to more specifically characterizethe credibility of the President's testimony? In other words, arethe motivations that he thinks he would be in legal jeopardy if hewas more specific in his characterization, or that you just believethe Republicans would move the goal posts no matter what he said?

MR. LOCKHART: Well, I think there has been enoughmoving of the goal posts already so that anything I say will then besubject to more dissection, so I think I won't say anything more.

Q Is there any way that impeachment was a part of thePresident's day beyond the one question he got at the pool spray, didhe get briefed by staff or anything else?

MR. LOCKHART: Specifically, I can only tell you, youknow, I spent five minutes with him before the bilat to give him asense of what I thought he might get asked. And I think some of thestaff spent a little bit of time with him tonight to make sure thatwe could set up this meeting with Congressman Shays. Now, in thecontext of that, he may have gotten a briefing. I wasn't there forthat, he may have gotten a briefing. So I'm sure it's taken sometime today -- but given the schedule, not a lot.

Q Also, is there any consideration -- I know you getasked this every day -- to the President addressing the nation ormaking some wider address on Wednesday, before the House takes itsup?

MR. LOCKHART: I don't have anything to report beyondwhat I said the other day.

Q Joe, has the President decided that he would ratherbe impeached than admit to a criminal act?

MR. LOCKHART: I see that as a false choice, so I don'tthink he's made that decision.

Q One of the things that moderate Republicans areworried about, I think, is that they fear that if they vote againstimpeachment and then the threat of impeachment is removed fromPresident Clinton, they're worried that he might not be so eager toaggressively listen to censure proposals, especially given hisacknowledged trouble with his own credibility. What can you say thatwill assure those moderate Republicans that he will indeed followthrough on censure if they vote against impeachment?

MR. LOCKHART: I can tell you that -- my message formoderate Republicans is that they should take that concern to theirleadership, they should take that concern to their leadership innumbers that shows that a majority of the will of the House and amajority of the American public say basic fairness demands a choiceon the floor of the House so that we won't have this problem that youthink that they have.

Q But how will the President assure them that therewill be a choice? In other words, that he would sign a censureresolution once impeachment was off the table?

MR. LOCKHART: I think the President has been veryforthcoming on the issue of censure. He spoke to it last Friday. Hespoke to it today. I think if members have an idea to bring forwardthe President will be open to it, open in discussing it with them.But again, we all come back to something that's not within thePresident's power, that's within the power of the Republicanleadership -- and that's to provide some basic fairness, to basicallytake a process that has been partisan from the beginning and rescueit by allowing a second vote on the floor, giving members a choice,giving the public some say, some input into this process.

Q Censure is a punishment, not something the President should be involved in deciding. I mean, he would give assurances that if Congress or the House -- you know, whatever -- came up with a censure proposal, that he would abide by that?

MR. LOCKHART: I think as Congress comes forward withany ideas the President would give them -- the President wouldsatisfy any concerns they might have on that front.

Q Would that include an appearance in the well?

MR. LOCKHART: I don't know that anyone has come forwardwith a proposal like that and, again, this is not the propernegotiating spot.

Q Thank you.

MR. LOCKHART: Thank you.


Middle East Trip: Briefing by National Security Advisor Sandy Berger (12/15/98)

Middle East Trip: Press Briefing by Secretary of State Madeleine Albright (12/14/98)

Middle East Trip: Press Briefing by White House Press Secretary Joe Lockhart (12/14/98)

The President's Trip to the Middle East: Briefing by Albright and Berger (12/13/98)

The President's Trip to the Middle East: Briefing by Lockhart (12/13/98)

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