Public Papers - 1989 - April
Interview With Members of the White House Press Corps
Iran Arms and Contra Aid Controversy
The President. Fire away.
Q. Mr. President, what are you going to do about the fact that sensitive and relevant documents were not reviewed by the Iran-contra committees?
The President. In the first place, I have great confidence that A.B. Culvahouse [Counsel to President Reagan] and those charged with cooperating with Congress were cooperative; I've seen nothing to indicate they weren't. Secondly, I would offer full cooperation to any request made of this administration, and I just can't confirm the hypothesis of your question at all.
Q. But you mean you would turn over any documents that they now want to see? Is that what you're saying by ``full cooperation''?
The President. Well, procedures were set up to determine what documents would be made available. Those procedures were agreed to by the Congress. Certainly, I would see that if any documents are in control of this administration -- relevant documents -- that we would live assiduously by those guidelines. But I have no reason to believe that the previous administration, the lawyers in it who worked closely with Congress, did not fulfill their obligations.
Q. Mr. President, were you an emissary to Honduras, as has been alleged?
The President. I went to Honduras, sure. That's a matter of public record.
Q. And did you have a quid pro quo deal?
The President. I've told you that I am not going to discuss that until the trial with North is over.
Q. But the jury is being sequestered today, sir, and it's -- --
The President. No, I might have something to say on it when the trial is over, but I would simply ask you to understand that this is a request of the lawyers. And I'm not going to do something that inadvertently will -- but put it this way: My conscience is clear.
Q. Well, there have been suggestions that -- on the documents -- that there might have been an oversight, either on the part of the FBI, the part of the White House staff. As far as you can tell, was there an oversight by any of those two bodies, or was it a question of -- the Congress was not pushing the right buttons to get the documents?
The President. Well, I'm not sure. I don't know. All I can just state is the confidence that I feel in Culvahouse and company. But we've received the letter down here, and I will take this opportunity to tell them we'll cooperate fully. But who controls the documents and all of that -- you'll have to talk to the lawyers about that.
Q. Mr. President, when you say -- --
The President. I think they're in the control and in the custody of the Archives archivists, but I'm not sure.
Q. When you say you'll cooperate fully with -- I presume you mean Senators Mitchell and Inouye [member and chairman of the Select Committee on Secret Military Assistance to Iran and the Nicaraguan Opposition, respectively]. In their letter -- --
The President. Everybody.
Q. Does that mean -- they've asked you, I think, to launch an investigation to find out exactly what happened. Are you saying you will launch an investigation or that you have?
The President. I don't remember ``launching an investigation.'' Was that part of their request?
Q. I think the language is ``an immediate and thorough investigation'' which essentially asks whether and why documents were not provided.
The President. Well, I would refer them to the people that were in charge of the documentation, which would be Mr. Culvahouse and company, in whom I have great confidence. But if there's anything we can do to encourage that -- absolutely.
Q. Mr. President, when you say your conscience is clear, do you mean that the interpretation that has been made of the documents in this trial, which I gather were made by Mr. North himself, are not entirely accurate?
The President. I'm not discussing anything about my role in this except to say that everything I've said I'll stand behind.
Q. You won't even -- since they're sequestered -- just give us a -- --
The President. I've just told the gentleman that I'm not going to go into that. So, please, don't ask me to do that which I've just said I'm not going to do, because you're burning up time. The meter is running. Throw the sand on you -- --
Q. Right. Assault weapons.
The President. And I am now filibustering, so -- [laughter].
Q. Sir, can I ask you about assault weapons?
The President. Oh, no, you've already used up your time.
Q. No, no, no. Assault weapons. You know, William Bennett, your drug czar, has made a proposal that you treat them like machineguns, which would mean people would register and they'd have their names on file and so forth. First off, what do you think of that idea? And secondly, when are you going to tell us your next step on that?
The President. Well, we're having a meeting this afternoon with certain Members of Congress on this. The standards that are set up in existing law about import are: ``suitability for sporting purposes.'' And we're being very careful here, but we're going to make a determination using that as a standard. And, Lesley [Lesley Stahl, CBS News], I can't say exactly when it will be, but I've expressed my concern about these weapons and their suitability. So, stay tuned. I don't know exactly when it will be, but there is a meeting here today that's just ongoing, and I have great confidence in Bill Bennett.
We've talked to a wide array of people on this. We've gone to some of the think tanks -- that very intelligent, thoughtful paper from Ed Feulner's [president, Heritage Foundation] group over at Heritage, very thoughtful. And so, our package will be -- I guarantee it will include more on law enforcement. And I'm sure that Bill Bennett will be totally on board. But we haven't gotten the final administration position yet.
Q. Mr. President, will you apply the same standard to domestically made weapons that you apply to imported weapons?
The President. We're in the process of discussing that now and what role the administration has -- whether it's strictly restriction of imports or something broader than that.
Q. At this point, are you convinced that any package that deals with drug violence and crime must also include some aspect that deals with assault weapons?
The President. Well, no, I can't say that. I can't go that far, because we really haven't gotten that far in determining it.
Q. Mr. President, the CBS-New York Times poll this morning puts your approval rating at about 61 percent but suggests there is more style than substance. What do you think about that evaluation? And I think that you and Governor Sununu have been briefed by a Teeter poll that's been taken. Does that contain the same sort of information?
The President. No, the Teeter poll -- I'm not sure it's just because the committee paid for it -- is much stronger. [Laughter]
Q. Higher ratings?
Q. What about the Iowa?
The President. Higher, higher, higher. I'm not sure. I don't want this to be considered a vicious assault on CBS. [Laughter] They're entitled to their polling figures. But the others were -- look, these things -- you know me on polls, John [John Mashek, Boston Globe]. You've heard me on this subject before, and I haven't changed my view. It's not a question of polls, but a question of what's going on, achieving what you're trying to do.
And we're making some progress here. I'm very pleased that the Senate did what it did on the savings and loan bill, pleased that we got a budget agreement that many cynics thought we could never achieve at all, no matter of what scope, whatsoever -- that took place. And so, I've been very pleased with the recent talks on the Middle East with three leaders there. And so, things are moving. But I don't feel under any pressure to meet somebody else's standard on what is progress or not. I know what I'm doing, and I think one thing is the country senses that. Otherwise, there wouldn't be that kind of support.
Aid to Cambodian Non-Communists
Q. Mr. President, are you going to offer military aid to the non-Communist resistance in Cambodia?
The President. No, no discussion of that yet, no decision taken on that yet.
Q. Mr. President, we're coming -- --
The President. I'll continue to give good support to the process and certainly to [President] Sihanouk's efforts.
Q. Did you say no decision or no discussion on that?
The President. No decision and -- not with me -- can't recall, but I'm not anywhere close to making a decision of that nature.
Q. We're coming up to the 100-day mark on your Presidency, which -- if you'll look over the past 50 years, every other President, or almost every other President, has come into office at times of crisis, and crisis has been kind of a stage on which we watch Presidents perform. How would you assess your first 100 days so far?
The President. About the same as Martin Van Buren's.
Q. Can you elaborate on that? [Laughter]
The President. Martin came in; he was not radically trying to change things. But then, that's about where the parallel ends, because I don't know what he did in his first 100 days. [Laughter]
Q. -- -- or any of the other 900 days.
The President. We got an agenda, and I've clicked off things that I think demonstrate progress. And I left out the whole question of an ethics package that I think is a very good one. We've had many visitors from foreign lands. We've moved forward on -- I want to add now to what I was saying -- moved forward on Third World debt in a positive way.
So, I think that we're moving reasonably well. And I don't even think in terms of 100 days because we aren't radically shifting things; this is the Martin Van Buren analogy. We didn't come in here throwing the rascals out to try to do something -- correct all the ills of the world in 100 days. Now, there's some ills of the world; there's some unsolved problems. And I'm methodically, I think, pragmatically moving forward on these. So, I really don't measure it in terms of 100 days.
Q. I guess we are the ones who measure the 100 days.
The President. You are.
Q. Foreign policy has been kind of held back. You've had visitors, but do you expect the pace of your foreign policy to pick up after this?
The President. I'm not sure I understand the question.
Q. Well, the pace -- --
The President. The pace of it? No, I don't. The pace of it is pretty intense -- numbers of visitors, amount of time I spend on foreign policy, initiatives taken by the Secretary of State, attention given to this in the White House, every single day. So, you see, I think we've got prudent foreign policy. We've set into forward motion certain reviews that are moving towards completion. And so, I don't feel a need for some precipitous and dramatic initiative in order to salve the consciences of those who are saying you've got to do something in 100 days.
Q. Let me go back -- --
Q. These reviews won't trigger something then?
The President. It could; it might. But I think Gorbachev -- on the Soviet East-West relations -- understands what we're about. I, frankly, thought that what we said on Poland the other day was new and a strong initiative. But that takes time to sort out these things. But I didn't do it because I wanted to get in under the 100-day wire. Now, the question is: We've spelled out what we want to do, and I've got to move our bureaucracy to see that we do it.
And you know, it's that kind of concept on the Middle East -- spent a lot of time on the Middle East. And I think King Hussein was right when he said yesterday that the time is right for some kind of action. But now we've got to assess, after he leaves here, where we go, what next step we take. We've got something out there on elections that offers some promise. We haven't backed away from historic positions on conference or whatever. And so, we move -- we take whatever the next step is.
I wish I could give you a more dramatic answer to the Lebanon, because this is one that really does hurt. And I'm very, very concerned about it. And here all I can say to you is that we have encouraged the Secretary-General to go forward, to try this mission of peace. There's some stumbling blocks to that; I'm told we will renew our call for removal of all foreign troops and for a cease-fire.
But here is one where I wish that there was some dramatic plan in which the players in the area could agree to, and it's not there. And we've talked to the Middle Eastern leaders. But I cite this one because I really feel it -- about the Lebanon, of the divisions in Lebanon. We've talked to the Brits about it. We've talked to the French about it -- and President Mitterrand the other day. And the people at the U.N. are trying to figure. But there is not a dramatic plan that can bring peace to Lebanon right now.
Q. Is that a problem that defies solution?
The President. The problem -- the short-run of it -- how you stop this firing, the shelling, how you get factions to stop warring -- has certainly in recent times defied solution. But we can't give up on it. We simply are not going to -- --
Q. How has the U.S. managed to provide any kind of influence in the situation?
The President. That's the problem: We don't have great influence in Lebanon, with the factions that are fighting. We do have good influence with many of the countries out there. In fact, I think our standing with the moderate Arab countries is as good today as any time in recent history. And I feel strongly about that. And back to the Martin Van Buren theory -- I mean, we're building still, coming back out of a time that hit a bit of a low 3 or 4 years ago. Then we restored some prestige by the way we acted in the Gulf. Then you see a cease-fire in the Gulf. We have, I think, much better communication now with Jordan. We've kept good cooperation and coordination with the Egyptians. The Israelis themselves attest to the fact that they have great confidence in our administration. We have some differences with all three of those countries, but, no, I think it's moving. But, Norm [Norman Sandler, United Press International], I wish there was a short-term answer to stop the killing in Lebanon.
Strategic Weapons Modernization
Q. -- -- you missed a couple of deadlines -- --
Q. Mr. President, could I -- --
Q. You've missed a couple of deadlines on the MX missile, on what you're going to do to modernize the strategic arsenal -- go MX, Midgetman. And Mr. Cheney gave you some recommendations this week, and a decision is expected this week. What are you going to do on that?
The President. Don't know yet. We'll obviously be talking to Cheney when he comes back from NATO. But no decision has been taken.
Q. Any leaning?
The President. Well, can't tell you that. I'm listening -- because this exercise yesterday in this Cabinet Room was not just a semantic drill of some sort. When I talk about cooperation with Congress, I mean it -- consultation with Congress, I mean it. And some of what yesterday was about was getting the views of various Members of Congress on this decision that's facing the President. But how do you -- you know, what do you do about SDI and levels of funding? What do you do about MX or Midgetman? And I have to make the call, the recommendation, from here; but I wanted to get their input. Now I want to get renewed talks with Dick Cheney when he comes back. The national security adviser has provided me with a lot of thinking on this, had several important briefings on it. And I will be prepared very soon to make a decision on it. But we haven't -- I can't go any further than that.
Middle East Peace Process
Q. Mr. President, you met now with [Egyptian President] Mubarak, [Israeli Prime Minister] Shamir, and [Jordanian King] Hussein. What is the next step in the Middle East peace process?
The President. Not sure now. On the table is the election process, and one other thing would be how we flesh that out, taking into consideration the concerns about it that have been expressed by Mubarak and by King Hussein and also by Mr. Shamir. So, how we do that -- what the modalities are of that -- a lot of thought will be going into that: who's represented; making clear that this isn't a final step, that that isn't going to solve the Middle East problem; making clear that it's a step, but we want it to be a constructive step; and exploring other options as well.
Q. What is the structural procedure for doing that?
The President. On the U.S. side, we'll use the National Security Council procedures to do that. And of course, I plan to be in touch with the various leaders. I've told them I want to do that as President. And I do plan to talk personally with some of the leaders out there on these matters -- --
Q. Is this a high priority?
The President. -- -- in addition to the ones I've already talked to. For example, I talked to King Fahd [of Saudi Arabia] the other day, and think that that is useful, to be sure. Now, after this round of visits, what do they think? A lot of these countries can be important players here, and the more agreement we can get on the next step, the more likely it is to succeed.
Q. Mr. President, on the Iowa: Is it time to say that 50-year-old battleships are, in fact, obsolete and begin taking them out of service? Is that the lesson here?
The President. No, that's -- --
Q. Or if not, what's your lesson on it?
The President. That's not -- well, my lesson is that -- to find out what happened in infinite detail, check all procedures to be sure that safety is at the highest point, and -- but not -- I wouldn't jump to the conclusion that because that kind of powder was put into these turrets in that way that that makes a useful platform obsolete. I'm not going to go that far.
Q. Could you indulge me one quick question because of a conflict that the Attorney General suggested yesterday?
The President. John, give me a break.
Q. One quick one. The Attorney General -- --
The President. Is this for TV or is this for the print?
Q. Both. The Attorney General suggested yesterday that it might be appropriate to drug-test people in public housing. HUD took immediate exception to that. What do you think?
The President. I'd have to talk to him about it because I don't know, and I'm not going to go off on some tangent here until I know exactly the thinking of our key Cabinet people. We've got a good Cabinet system, and I encourage people to speak out. But the decisions on something of that nature will be made right here in that room, and they're not going to be made until I have all the facts.
Q. You don't favor a drug -- --
Q. Do you expect interest rates to come down now that you've got a budget agreement?
The President. I was very pleased at the market reaction to the budget agreement. It seems to have been underreported, but nevertheless, it's very heartening, Terry [Terence Hunt, Associated Press].
Q. How about the interest rates? You said you were going to campaign -- --
The President. I'm not heartened by the interest rates. [Laughter]
Q. Is there still going to be those drug tests for the Federal employees?
The President. Selectively, yes, absolutely.
Q. Selectively? To everybody?
The President. Well, we've already got some patterns out there -- well, widely. If we're talking about a drug-free workplace, we've got to have some testing, and I support that. This idea that this is a total infringement on everybody -- I don't agree. Now, in some cases -- I mean, I don't want it to be so widespread, but I do think that selective drug testing is very important, and nobody will change my mind on that one.
Q. Civil rights? Human -- no?
The President. Civil rights is very important, too -- and so is the law.
Note: The interview began at 10:20 a.m. on the Oval Office patio at the White House. The following journalists participated in the interview: Lesley Stahl, CBS News; James Angle, National Public Radio; Terence Hunt, Associated Press; Norman Sandler, United Press International; Lawrence McQuillan, Reuters; Pascal Taillandier, Agence France-Presse; Michael Duffy, Time; John Mashek, Boston Globe; and Tim McNulty, Chicago Tribune.