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Excerpts from the Press Briefing by Ari Fleischer

MR. FLEISCHER: Good afternoon. Let me fill you in on the President’s day. The President began this morning with a phone call to President Putin of Russia. They discussed the situation in Iraq. They underscored the importance of bilateral cooperation, despite the disagreements the United States and Russia have over the situation in Iraq. And President Putin reiterated to President Bush his invitation to visit St. Petersburg at the end of May.

President Bush also this morning called to congratulate Hu Jintao on becoming China’s President. President Bush and President Hu agreed on the importance of good U.S.-China relations for the advancement of bilateral interests and international peace and stability. The Presidents shared views on Iraq and North Korea. President Bush expressed appreciation for Beijing’s efforts to help resolve the North Korean issue peacefully. President Bush also reiterated his administration’s commitment to a one China policy.

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The President then had his intelligence briefing, FBI briefing, had additional meetings, and has no public events on his schedule today. I’m happy to take your questions.

QUESTION: Can we get your reaction to some of the comments that were coming from the Hill? Senator Daschle saying that he’s «saddened that this President failed so miserably at diplomacy that we are now forced to war.»

MR. FLEISCHER: Of course, members of Congress, including Senator Daschle, are well within their rights to express their opinions. If you take a look at what Senator Daschle has said about the inevitability of using force in 1998, and if you take a look at what Senator Daschle said about the importance of raising the rhetoric to a higher level and not politicizing the rhetoric, I find his statement to be inconsistent. But perhaps he has a better explanation.

QUESTION: But do you believe he is politicizing this, that no one has a right at this time to criticize the President?

MR. FLEISCHER: No, I just said the opposite. It is within the rights of every member of Congress to say what they think, to express their opinions. He certainly is well within his rights to express his opinions. It just strikes me as inconsistent with previous things he has said.

QUESTION: Can I also ask you about something Senator John McCain said on the floor this morning, that he would not support any tax cuts or spending increases not related to improving the nation’s defenses? The President hasn’t yet talked about cost at all with the American people. Again, we’re standing on the brink and he is still proposing a massive tax cut. At what point is he going to explain to people what this is going to cost the country in terms of the economy?

MR. FLEISCHER: Well, Congress is just beginning the whole process of reviewing the budget. And all of this will become a part of that in the event that it does lead to hostilities; the administration would send up a supplemental appropriation bill to the Congress. And so Congress will then have at its disposal all the relevant facts and figures to make the determinations for their budget issues as the year proceeds.

In all cases, the President, as he has stressed repeatedly, is focused on, and urges Congress to continue to focus on, domestic needs, whether there is war, or whether there is peace. And those domestic needs include providing economic growth so that if there is war, when the war is over, our military has jobs to come home to. And a part of that is passing the economic package.

QUESTION: President Putin condemned the military action in Iraq and spoke of it to possibly hurting relations. At the same time, the Russian parliament pulled down a vote on the nuclear arms treaty, China is condemning the President’s march to war. Did either one of these divisions come up in his conversations? Did he try to explain why he’s doing what he’s doing?

MR. FLEISCHER: The two openly acknowledged that they don’t see eye-to-eye on whether or not force should be used to disarm Saddam Hussein. They agree about threats in the region, but it’s no secret that they don’t see eye-to-eye on whether the use of force is a required remedy to make Saddam Hussein disarm. But the two of them in the phone call did stress to each other the importance of maintaining good U.S.-Russia relations, and the both expressed confidence that it would, indeed, happen.

QUESTION: Is Russia one of the countries the President was referring to when he said, these countries share our belief about the threat with Iraq, but they don’t share our resolve?

MR. FLEISCHER: The President didn’t specifically define who he was referring to, so I wouldn’t define it for him.

QUESTION: When the President speaks to the nation at the beginning of hostilities, will he then, for the first time, talk about what he expects the conflict to cost in terms of lives and in terms of dollars?

MR. FLEISCHER: I’m just not going to be in the business of predicting future presidential remarks. If and when it gets to that point, the President would indicate something himself. I wouldn’t predict every circumstance.

QUESTION: Don’t you think that the President will want to give the American public some indication? All we get is —

MR. FLEISCHER: I’m not saying he wouldn’t. I’m just saying it’s not my place today to do it for him.

QUESTION: All we get is a vague thing about a supplemental. People who were here from Congress yesterday said that they estimated it would be $80 billion to $90 billion. But there’s not a word out of here, no word from the President.

MR. FLEISCHER: There was no discussion in the meetings with members of Congress yesterday — none — about the level of a supplemental.

QUESTION: What about American lives? We don’t hear about that yet either.

MR. FLEISCHER: Again, the President has said that he hopes that this can be done peacefully. If there are lives lost, he believes the American people understand the risks, the sacrifices that people are prepared to make if it is necessary to use force to disarm Saddam Hussein. I think people understand that. This has been a very serious run-up to what may become war. And the American people have heard and understand the reality and the gravity of the situation. And I think they understand that.

QUESTION: Is there any doubt that there’s going to be war?

QUESTION: I pick up on that — what you said. Does it bother the President that most of the world is against this war, and half of America? And I have a follow-up.

MR. FLEISCHER: Helen, this is an issue where you and I will never agree when you state your premise about what the people think.

QUESTION: This isn’t you and I. This is a very legitimate question.

QUESTION: There’s a new poll showing —

MR. FLEISCHER: Helen, I think there’s a lot of public polling that you can see out there. The recent poll from your neighbor to the right, ABC News showed that 79 percent of the American people think that Saddam Hussein is a threat to the United States. I’ve heard you say on many occasions most Americans don’t think he’s a threat to the United States.

QUESTION: I didn’t say — is said the war.

MR. FLEISCHER: So I understand your strong opinions clearly. I’m not sure the American people agree with you.

QUESTION: That’s a very personal attack. I said the war. Are they in favor of —

MR. FLEISCHER: I thought it was an accurate observation.

QUESTION: Are you saying 79 percent of the American people are for this war?

MR. FLEISCHER: What I just said to you is that according to that ABC poll, 79 percent of the American people think that Saddam Hussein is a threat to the United States.

QUESTION: That wasn’t what I asked you.

MR. FLEISCHER: In terms of support for a war, again, talking about the public polls, I saw one this morning in USA Today that put that figure at 66 percent, if I recall.

QUESTION: And one other question, which is, can the President present any show-and-tell evidence of ties to al Qaeda with Saddam, and also a nuclear potential immediately or imminently?

MR. FLEISCHER: You heard what Secretary Powell talked about when he went to the United Nations and has reiterated on a regular basis since then, as well as others in the administration, about the presence in Baghdad of al Qaeda operatives, about the involvement of al Qaeda trained in Iraq involved in the assassination of AID worker Foley in Jordan. So this has been something that has been discussed very publicly.

QUESTION: Why is the — the CIA and FBI have never said that, backed that up.

MR. FLEISCHER: Don’t think it would have been said if it hadn’t been supported by them.

QUESTION: Will U.S. troops enter Iraq, no matter what, at this point? In other words, even if Saddam Hussein, in some off chance, takes this ultimatum, leaves the country with his sons, will U.S. troops, nevertheless, enter Iraq?

MR. FLEISCHER: The President addressed that last night. And the President made clear that Saddam Hussein had 48 hours to leave, beginning at 8:00 p.m. Eastern time last night. The President also made plain to the American people that if Saddam were to leave, the American forces, coalition forces would still enter Iraq, hopefully this time peacefully, because Iraqi military would not be under orders to attack or fire back. And that way Iraq could be disarmed from possession of weapons of mass destruction.

QUESTION: So the bottom line is, Americans are going to occupy Iraq, no matter what, at this point?

MR. FLEISCHER: The bottom line is, a coalition of the willing will disarm Saddam Hussein’s Iraq, no matter what.

QUESTION: And up in the north, will the United States allow Turkish troops to push deeper into Iraq than they are positioned now along the buffer zone along the border?

MR. FLEISCHER: Our position on this, and this has been made clear to the government of Turkey, is that no outside forces other than those under coalition command should enter Iraq.

QUESTION: And then, finally, on the Daschle thing, are you saying that because Senator Daschle criticized the President’s diplomacy, that’s inconsistent with the principle of not politicizing the war, and that, therefore, from that podium speaking on behalf of the Commander-in-Chief during wartime,

that shouldn’t be done?

MR. FLEISCHER: Speaking from this podium, I received a question about statements made by a member of Congress, and as I said, every member of Congress is entitled to state what they think, no matter what they think. That is their right, and they are entitled to it, and will always will be entitled to it. I merely point out you can compare this statement with previous statements made and draw on your own inferences about whether those statements are consistent, or not. I say, when you look at what he’s previously said, his statements are not consistent.

QUESTION: But you don’t want to discourage dissent in this country at all?

MR. FLEISCHER: It’s every person’s right to dissent, and nothing has been suggested here that would ever say that people don’t have that right. I have not said that here.

QUESTION: Ari, can you give us a little more on the expulsion of people with ties to Iraqi intelligence that the President eluded to last night, or discuss how many might be involved? Were their specific activity they were believed involved in?

MR. FLEISCHER: I don’t have the specific numbers. You may want to talk to the FBI or the State Department about that. But we have worked with allied nations about the potential threats that Iraqi so-called diplomats might present because of concerns that they’re not diplomats, they actually are working intelligence fields. And the United States is taking actions within our rights. Other nations have taken similar actions. I believe the first nation to take such an action, if you recall, was several weeks ago when the Philippines threw out an Iraqi — a high-ranking Iraqi diplomat after a terrorist attack in the Philippines where evidence was right away traced back to the Iraqi embassy.

QUESTION: So were there people in the United States who have been expelled as part of this?

MR. FLEISCHER: There were, and the State Department has the details on that. If I recall, this was made public. It was officials up in New York.

QUESTION: Ari, just to follow up on something in the gaggle this morning. Saddam Hussein has defied the ultimatum, and the Pentagon officials said last night that the President’s statement — speech was worded so that if Saddam Hussein did defy the ultimatum, there was the option of starting military force at any time before the 48 hours is up. Would you agree with that? Is that how you see it, if military action could now start at any time because Saddam Hussein has defied the ultimatum and said he’s not leaving?

MR. FLEISCHER: Let me make two points: One, Saddam Hussein has led Iraq to many mistakes in the past, principally by developing weapons of mass destruction. Saddam Hussein, if he doesn’t leave the country, will make his final mistake. The President continues to hope he will.

On the question of timing, anything involving timing I will refer to the Pentagon. As a matter of White House procedure, as you’re very familiar with — I’ve explained this to many people individually, I’ve said it collectively in the off-the-camera session this morning — the same policy that was in effect in 1991 will be in effect at the White House this year, and that is all operational details, including questions of timing, et cetera, will be matters for the Pentagon to talk about.

QUESTION: So you’re leaving it open? You’re not ruling it out.

MR. FLEISCHER: I leave it for the Pentagon to discuss. I remind you of the President’s words in his speech was, «a time of our choosing». That’s how the President expressed it. He also talked about 48 hours for Saddam Hussein to leave the country to avoid military conflict.

QUESTION: If Saddam Hussein goes into exile, will the U.S. seek to have him prosecuted for war crimes?

MR. FLEISCHER: That would be a question for the international community to consider. We hope that that will become an option that can be considered.

QUESTION: And Secretary Powell said today that there is roughly 30 countries in the coalition of the willing. That leaves roughly 160 United Nations members in the coalition of the unwilling. Why is that?

MR. FLEISCHER: First of all, that’s, I don’t think, a fair characterization of other nations to say that they’re in a coalition of the unwilling. Not every nation has the ability to contribute. Not every nation is in an area that is geographically advantageous concerning military operations or overflight or basing. So I think it depends significantly on the ability of these nations to contribute to a coalition. But I don’t think you can accurately say that.

If you were to take a look at — by that standard, then you would be able to make the same conclusions about many previous wars, including the first Persian Gulf War, say that the world was against it by that standard.

QUESTION: So does the United States have most of the members it wants, or all of the members it wants?

MR. FLEISCHER: I think it’s fair to say that the United States, as the President said, would act with a rather robust and significant size coalition of the willing, by any measurement.

QUESTION: Ari, to follow up on Elizabeth’s question, is it still the administration’s position that Saddam Hussein has until Wednesday 8:00 p.m., evening Eastern Standard Time to leave his country? And is there are any indications that that window will be open up until that point?

MR. FLEISCHER: I can only repeat to you what the President said, and that is, Saddam Hussein has 48 hours, and he made those remarks at 8:00 p.m. last night, to leave the country to avoid military conflict.

QUESTION: How will you validate or confirm whether or not he has actually done so? Who are you talking with?

MR. FLEISCHER: I think that it is not a matter of any doubt; if Saddam Hussein were to leave the country, I think everybody would know, and everybody would know rather quickly.

QUESTION: And your reaction to the French Ambassador’s statement to CNN this morning. He was saying that if Saddam Hussein were to use chemical and biological weapons, this would change the situation completely and immediately for the French government, suggesting that the French military could assist the U.S.-led coalition. Is this a sign, perhaps, of a change in point of view?

MR. FLEISCHER: One, I thought it was a notable statement. Two, let us hope it never has to come to pass.

QUESTION: Ari, when you say notable statement, do you mean we’d welcome their hope?

MR. FLEISCHER: I just note that is a notable statement for France to say such a thing.

QUESTION: But I didn’t hear you say, and we’d love to have them help us.

MR. FLEISCHER: I also said, let us hope that never comes to pass, because it is premised on our troops being hit with chemical or biological weapons.

QUESTION: But you’d accept their help?

MR. FLEISCHER: I just said it’s a notable statement. I have not had an opportunity to have it fully studied by the United States government.

QUESTION: Ari, more generally, we have not seen the President in any kind of informal setting for a while now, other than with the dogs yesterday. Could you describe for us the President’s mood, what he may be doing to keep focused, and the general White House mood?

MR. FLEISCHER: Well, I was with the President before he made the speech last night and afterwards. And I think the President is very, very focused. The President, having worked on this issue for such a considerable period of time, pursued the diplomacy with the diligence and the importance that the diplomacy deserved, believes now and is comfortable now with the fact that the moment of truth has come.

And the President believes in his heart that to preserve peace around the world, Saddam Hussein must be disarmed. And he is comfortable with the action that is pending, and is confident that it will achieve its goal. He is, I think, rather serious these days about that, focused and determined to achieve that mission, and he’s comfortable with it.

QUESTION: Ari, what is the number of countries that you believe are willing to participate in a coalition of the willing? Is it 30? And how do you define participation in the coalition?

MR. FLEISCHER: Well, we have all along said, in terms of actual, active combat, there would be very, very few countries. In terms of providing the necessary means of basing or overflight, which, after all, is how combat would ensue — you can’t have combat if you don’t have supplies, you can’t have combat if you don’t have overflight — it will be a rather large number. And Secretary Powell has discussed that today.

QUESTION: And 30 is the number that —

MR. FLEISCHER: That’s the number the Secretary said.

QUESTION: And the number that the White House obviously believes is accurate?

MR. FLEISCHER: That’s correct, that’s the number.

QUESTION: There were remarks this morning from Mr. Aldouri, as well, at the United Nations, in which he said that if there is a war, how could you have a safe place in the war, and if you’re the invader, how can you ask for a safe place for you. What does the administration make of that?

MR. FLEISCHER: Say that statement again.

QUESTION: He says, if you are the invader, if you are the invader, how can you ask for a safe place for you.

MR. FLEISCHER: Who does «you» apply to?

QUESTION: The United States.

MR. FLEISCHER: I’m not sure I really understand what the point is, other than, the only way I can — I interpret that statement to be, if the United States uses military force, the President is, of course, very comfortable and confident that we will be successful in achieving our objectives. I make no prediction about the length of time. I’ve seen many people say that this could be relatively quick. We make no such assumptions. But the President is confident in the outcome.

QUESTION: One other thing, if I may. When the President speaks next, do you anticipate that it would be before any hostilities? Would it be at the end of this 48-hour period? What should we expect mow?

MR. FLEISCHER: I’m not going to speculate about that. We will, of course, keep you advised, and if we have something, we’ll share it.

QUESTION: Back on the coalition of the willing. The fact that there are so few countries that are actually going to put their soldiers, their troops on the line in military action, is that by design, or because the U.S. could not attract more players to that part of the action?

MR. FLEISCHER: Well, I’m not going to get into any of these details until it is revealed and you have the information in front of you about what countries are doing exactly what, and then I think you’ll be able to make more informed judgments about it. The fact of the matter is, the overwhelming amount of combat will be provided by a relatively small number of countries. And that is sufficient to accomplish the mission. And other nations are free to contribute as they see fit.

QUESTION: But was that by design?

MR. FLEISCHER: Well, I think it’s a reflection of the diplomacy; I think it’s a reflection of the ability of different nations to contribute; and I think it’s also a reflection of how much is needed to accomplish the mission.

QUESTION: I’m sorry, could I — is the President today trying to grow the coalition of the willing? Can you tell us a little bit about really what is he doing today? This morning you said he’s going over war plans. But is he also trying to get more nations to come on board and participate?

MR. FLEISCHER: I think there could be some movement to the various degrees. The Secretary also talked about nations that are contributing, but don’t want to be publicly named. And so, back to Jim’s question, there could be room for some imprecision on the exact number as different nations see fit. But I think that the parameters of it are basically set.

And the President, as I indicated, spent his day on the phone calls with some of the foreign leaders. In meetings, he has domestic meetings today, as well. He’s meeting with other members of his Cabinet. And so he’s pursuing a variety of items today.

QUESTION: Two questions. One on the 48-hour deadline. Is it the President’s policy that regardless of what statements have come out of Iraq today, that Saddam has the full 48 hours to think it over, perhaps change his mind and exercise the option the President offered?

MR. FLEISCHER: The statement spoke for itself. I’m not going to say anything different from the statement. The statement spoke for itself. Saddam knows what he needs to do.

QUESTION: Your answer to Suzanne’s question suggested that that’s the case, that the President would give him the full 48 hours to perhaps change his mind and rethink the matter. Is that correct?

MR. FLEISCHER: I’m not going to change what the President said. The President said he has 48 hours to depart to avoid military conflict.

QUESTION: It stands — so it’s 48 hours.

MR. FLEISCHER: It stands.

QUESTION: Regarding Senator Daschle’s comments, what in your view is precisely the inconsistency between Senator Daschle’s statement last year that we shouldn’t politicize this, and his statement yesterday that the President had failed diplomatically? What’s the inconsistency?

MR. FLEISCHER: Well, I would refer you — and I made this about several statements when I said inconsistency — I would refer you to statements made on February 12, 1998, in the Congressional Record; statements made on February 5, 1998, as reported in The Chicago Tribune — that all deals with the inevitability of the use of force against Saddam Hussein — as well as statement on September 25, 2002, in the Congressional Record about not politicizing the rhetoric and rising to a higher level.

QUESTION: Well, I understand that what you’re saying is inconsistent between the first statement you read and what he said yesterday. But are you saying that there’s an inconsistency between the second and what he said yesterday, politicizing the rhetoric?

MR. FLEISCHER: I said it’s inconsistent.

QUESTION: In what way is what he said yesterday politicizing the rhetoric?

MR. FLEISCHER: Because I don’t find it consistent.


QUESTION: How — the question is how?


QUESTION: Ari, the President today is obviously reaching out to President Putin to try to put differences behind them. Is he making any similar type effort with France and Germany?

MR. FLEISCHER: Well, as you know, Secretary Powell spoke with Foreign Minister Fischer and Foreign Minister de Villepin yesterday morning. And we’ll keep you filled in on the President’s conversations and calls. At the end of the day, this is always important and the President will note this, that we are allies, that we share common values, and that we work together on many issues. I have not been shy about saying to everybody here, even in the thick of a disagreement with France, that France has been a good partner in the war against terrorism. They have shared information. They have been helpful in the war against terrorism. On this issue, they see it very much the opposite and the President regrets that.

QUESTION: Forgive my skepticism. Did I just hear you say the President continues to hope Saddam Hussein will accept his ultimatum?

MR. FLEISCHER: Of course, he hopes.

QUESTION: Are you saying the President is hoping and believes he will?

MR. FLEISCHER: I didn’t say the President believed he will, but, of course, he continues to hope. The President continues to hope, and he knows that the chances are slim, that Saddam Hussein will leave. But, of course, I think everybody hopes that this can be done peacefully. It may not. The President has said that the mission would be to disarm Saddam Hussein. And that’s what has brought the world to this point because Saddam Hussein has not disarmed.

QUESTION: He is certainly proceeding on the assumption that this is not going to happen?

MR. FLEISCHER: That’s a safe assumption. That’s correct.

QUESTION: Ari, two quick questions, I hope you have seen the interview.

MR. FLEISCHER: I did, you gave me a copy of it. (Laughter.)

QUESTION: My question is —

MR. FLEISCHER: Not that I’m not a subscriber, but you did drop a copy on my desk.

QUESTION: My question is that since President has given an option of choice to Saddam Hussein to leave the country by tomorrow night, that means we are not interested to capturing him? And how about the crimes he has committed against his own people, so we will never know about them, and he will never be brought to justice.

MR. FLEISCHER: The President has said that he hopes Saddam Hussein will leave, and he’s given him that period of time in which to do so. The President also talked about war crimes and not following orders. That was a very important message, and a message that was shared with the people of Iraq. If it goes to war, we hope that will have some effect.

QUESTION: Second question, presidential — any advice that for a small investor or for a small businessman, or for somebody like me? I’m traveling to South Asia next month; what would be the advice from the President?

MR. FLEISCHER: On your investments?

QUESTION: No, for the people here, the stock market, or the businessman or a traveler?

MR. FLEISCHER: I have no advice to offer investors. That’s not my place. That’s not my job.

QUESTION: Ari, can you give us any tick-tock on the formulation of the President’s speech yesterday? Especially any deliberations about whether to include a firm deadline of 48 hours?

MR. FLEISCHER: Yesterday I got repeated phone calls from press saying they heard there was no deadline in there, and it had always been in there. Obviously, somebody who may not have wanted it in there was talking to the press and saying, there isn’t. So I can’t explain that. But in the drafts — early drafts that I saw, it was in there and it remained in there.

QUESTION: Does the President have, or is intending to, or Dr. Rice, any plans to talk to Israel in a diplomatic way about the issue of non-response if they’re hit; not coming into the war, if we go to war?

MR. FLEISCHER: Well, we have, and we will continue to consult with Israel. Of course, Israel has the right to defend itself. And we will continue to consult with Israel as they exercise their rights.

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