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 for me?

Q Joe, the President said today that he was willing to make every effort to come up with a reasonable compromise to the impeachment. What would that entail?

MR. LOCKHART: Well, I think that the basis of a compromise would be what most Americans support and many, many members of Congress support, which is some sort of censure proposal that falls short of impeachment. I mean, we've certainly been doing a good deal of work in encouraging member-to-member conversations. There are some other private conversations that have gone on to try to pursue this. But I think the President signaled a willingness again today to work with Congress in some cooperative effort to find something short of impeachment -- which is what the public wants.

Q Congressman Shays, who the White House has been counting on as an anti-impeachment vote, said today that he doesn't have the same level of conviction about where he stood and that he wants to meet with the President, face-to-face. Does that raise concerns that the tide is turning against you now and 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 plans to vote against impeachment -- said if the vote was held today he would vote against impeachment. But it is important, to the extent that concerns come up, that members of Congress feel that our legal team is available to them, that the President is available to them to work through any concerns that come up.

Q Has the President made any calls to lawmakers today?

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

Q How do you see the President spending his time once he gets back to the states on Tuesday night, between the start of his return 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 to deal with members if they believe that's what would be constructive and helpful. Because, as the President said today, it's very important that we find a way to put this fierce partisanship aside for the good of the country, we find a way to find a compromise that's in the best interest of this country short of impeachment.

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

So I think we will continue to work and we will continue to 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 of proposed compromise or alternative?

MR. LOCKHART: Well, as we've said for a long time, I think it's most important for members to work together as far as putting together the specifics of whatever a censure motion or censure proposal would be. Again, as I said, we're encouraging member-to-member conversation and there are some private, confidential discussions going on that I don't think would be productive 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 of concerns and I'll remind you of some of the questions that have been put to me, where members had argued until recently that this was all about 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 another statement or articulation of contrition. And I think the President dealt straight on with that. So we're going to work very hard to meet the concerns of the members. We're going to continue to work because we believe that we need to find, and the country needs to find, some compromise short of impeachment.

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

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

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

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

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

Q Is he tired?

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

Q The President said today that a Senate trial would not be in the interest of the country, but is he still willing to stay in office and to fight a trial if it comes to that?

MR. LOCKHART: Well, we believe that there is nothing that has been put forward to date that reaches the standard of an impeachable offense. What we believe we've seen is a partisan effort. To begin the process to, as admittedly, some of the Republican leaders discussed, they don't want to remove the President, they just want to punish him.

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

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

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

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

MR. LOCKHART: Well, there is very little historical precedent, but I doubt there is any historical precedent that says a trial can be done in three days. We have no idea how long it will take, but I doubt that this is something that can be dispensed with quickly. You are looking at a lot of pieces of information that need to 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 the interests of the country to find some alternative to impeachment and you have mentioned that an impeachment trial will take time and continue this partisanship that we have seen recently. Are there other costs to the country if there is an impeachment trial; for instance, do you see economic consequences?

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

We are at a turning point here, I think, and we need to face this this week, which is will the parties work together like they have in the past to do very important work -- from balancing the budget to welfare reform to reducing the budget deficit -- or will we now turn on an issue where Republicans in a partisan way will move not in what we believe is in the best interests of the country to try to remove the President and set us off on a negative and downward spiral of partisanship over the next two years.

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

MR. LOCKHART: I think that would send a pretty sorry message to the American public that, on a partisan basis, a party, because they had the majority, could remove the President on something 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 two ways. I don't think that Republican members, whether they be moderate, conservative, liberal, tall or short, should feel like if they vote yes -- or, excuse me, they vote no on impeachment, they are guaranteed a primary opponent. There are also press reports on that subject. I don't think there should be a Republican Committee Chairman who feels that their future in leadership or chairmanship is at risk. There are also press reports on that.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Q Also, is there any consideration -- I know you get asked this every day -- to the President addressing the nation or making some wider address on Wednesday, before the House takes its up?

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

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

MR. LOCKHART: I see that as a false choice, so I don't think he's made that decision.

Q One of the things that moderate Republicans are worried about, I think, is that they fear that if they vote against impeachment and then the threat of impeachment is removed from President Clinton, they're worried that he might not be so eager to aggressively listen to censure proposals, especially given his acknowledged trouble with his own credibility. What can you say that will assure those moderate Republicans that he will indeed follow through on censure if they vote against impeachment?

MR. LOCKHART: I can tell you that -- my message for moderate Republicans is that they should take that concern to their leadership, they should take that concern to their leadership in numbers that shows that a majority of the will of the House and a majority of the American public say basic fairness demands a choice on the floor of the House so that we won't have this problem that you think that they have.

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

MR. LOCKHART: I think the President has been very forthcoming on the issue of censure. He spoke to it last Friday. He spoke to it today. I think if members have an idea to bring forward the President will be open to it, open in discussing it with them. But again, we all come back to something that's not within the President's power, that's within the power of the Republican leadership -- and that's to provide some basic fairness, to basically take a process that has been partisan from the beginning and rescue it 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 with any ideas the President would give them -- the President would satisfy 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 forward with a proposal like that and, again, this is not the proper negotiating spot.

Q Thank you.

MR. LOCKHART: Thank you.

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