White House Daily Briefing, February 24, 2004
|Tuesday February 24,
THE WHITE HOUSE
PRESS BRIEFING BY SCOTT McCLELLAN
THE WHITE HOUSE
PRESS BRIEFING BY SCOTT McCLELLAN
James S. Brady Press Briefing Room
1:00 P.M. EST
MR. McCLELLAN: Good afternoon. I'd like to begin with a statement by the President.
Q: Another one?
MR. McCLELLAN: Another one. This is on the elections in Iran. And again, it's a statement by the President.
"I'm very disappointed in the recently disputed parliamentary elections in Iran. The disqualification of some 2,400 candidates by the unelected Guardian Council deprived many Iranians of the opportunity to freely choose their representatives. I join many in Iran and around the world in condemning the Iranian regime's efforts to stifle freedom of speech, including the closing of two leading reformist newspapers, in the run-up to the election. Such measures undermine the rule of law and are clear attempts to deny the Iranian people's desire to freely choose their leaders.
"The United States supports the Iranian people's aspirations to live in freedom, enjoy their God-given rights, and determine their own destiny."
And with that, I will be glad to take questions.
Q: Scott, on the day's other big announcement, four years ago, in the South Carolina primary debate, the President was asked, "So if a state were voting on gay marriage, you would suggest to that state not to approve it?" And the response of the President was, "The state can do what they want to do." When did the President change his mind that the issue of gay marriage was not a matter for states and, in fact, was a federal issue?
MR. McCLELLAN: John, the President has always firmly believed that marriage is a sacred institution between a man and a woman. He has always held that view. And I think what you're referring to is that the President has talked about how states have the right to enter into their own legal arrangements. And that's what the President is referring to.
Q: The words in the question were "gay marriage," and I do realize that the President has opposed gay marriage, but when did he --
MR. McCLELLAN: The President's view was very well-known during the campaign of 2000, that he believes marriage is a sacred institution. And he supported efforts to protect and defend the sanctity of marriage.
Q: Which is what I just said. But my question was, to go to the actual substance of my question, was, when did the President change his mind that this was not an issue for states and, in fact, was a federal issue?
MR. McCLELLAN: Again, I dispute the premise of your question. His views have always been well-known on this very issue.
Q: Yes, but he always described it as a state issue. Now he's describing it as a federal issue. When did he change his mind?
MR. MCCLELLAN: No, no, he said that states have the right to enter into their own legal arrangements.
Go ahead, Terry.
Q: Scott, is this an issue that the President wants to raise in the campaign and try to draw a distinction with Senator Kerry, who opposes a constitutional amendment?
MR. McCLELLAN: Terry, it's an issue of national importance. You heard the President address that earlier, in his remarks. There is confusion -- growing confusion in this country right now because of this issue. And that is why we need clarity. The President specifically called for this debate to be conducted in a civil manner, without bitterness or anger, as he put it, and with respect for one another.
The President recognizes that an issue of national importance like this requires leadership and requires a President to make decisions, and then to raise the level of discourse and have a civil discussion on this issue. And that's what he's done.
Q: Does that mean that he will try to draw a distinction with Senator Kerry? You know, he said -- the President said last night, it's all about choices. Is he going to try to say that this is what he chooses, and here's what I choose?
MR. McCLELLAN: The President is going to continue to fight to protect the sanctity of marriage. I think you have to look at this in the context of recent events. We cannot pretend that the events in Massachusetts or San Francisco are not happening. And that's why the President is providing leadership, and making a decision based on principle. And he will continue to talk about the importance of protecting this sacred institution.
Q: Scott, two questions. Just to follow up on John's, he was asked in that debate specifically about gay marriage, not about states having the right to form contractual arrangements, domestic partnerships or civil unions. So did he misspeak, when asked directly about gay marriage, when he answered, it should be up to the states?
MR. McCLELLAN: What I'm telling you is that the President has always believed marriage is a sacred institution between a man and a woman; that it should be an institution that is protected. And that's what the President has always made very clear. John was talking about a change, and I don't see that.
Q: Well, but in that actual quote he was directly asked, and the words, "gay marriage" were used in the question to him.
MR. McCLELLAN: No, I think the President's views are very well known, and they are what they have always been.
Q: Okay. On the matter of civil unions -- I don't want to get bogged down in the legalisms, if I could just draw a picture. What does the President believe should happen in this country, if the state of Vermont, Massachusetts, California, wherever, establishes the kind of domestic partnerships that he says he favors, and a same-sex couple then moves?
MR. McCLELLAN: Wait, I'm sorry, that he says he favors --
Q: He says it should be up to the state, I'm sorry.
MR. McCLELLAN: Okay.
Q: And then a same-sex couple moves from the state where their partnership is recognized, to Texas, to wherever -- should they have the same rights in the new state that their old state gave them?
MR. McCLELLAN: I think that, actually, the Defense of Marriage Act states that, one, for federal law, marriage is between a man and a woman. And then it goes on to state that states are not required to recognize relationships from other states that are "treated as" marriage. So that's what the Defense of Marriage spells out. And the President has strongly supported the Defense of Marriage Act.
Q: Okay, so he doesn't think that same-sex couples should be able to move out of a state that recognizes their partnership into one --
MR. McCLELLAN: Well, again, it says "treated as" marriage, and he supports the Defense of Marriage Act, which addresses that issue.
Q: Scott, can I have a rebuttal, since you mischaracterized my question?
MR. McCLELLAN: Hang on one second.
Q: When the President says that the states should be free to pick legal arrangements other than marriage, does that include civil unions, specifically?
MR. McCLELLAN: Yes, states can make their own decisions with regard to legal arrangements. That would include hospital visitation rights, it would include insurance benefits, it would include civil unions -- we talked about this earlier. The President has made it very clear that he would not have supported it for the state of Texas.
Q: Civil union?
MR. McCLELLAN: Right.
Q: Okay. Let me ask one more question. There's this interesting sentence here where he says that "marriage cannot be severed from its cultural, religious and natural roots without weakening the good influence of society." So how does gay marriage weaken society, in the President's view?
MR. McCLELLAN: Well, this goes to the issue of an institution that is enduring and lasting. The President said in his remarks that this is the most fundamental institution in our civilization. And he talked about, in his State of the Union, about the importance of defending these kinds of enduring institutions, that some things -- that some things never change. He actually addressed that in his State of the Union address. And he talked about the importance of making sure that the people's voice is heard, as well.
Q: But specifically, how does allow -- how does allowing gay marriage, allowing two people of the same sex to marry, how does that weaken our society?
MR. McCLELLAN: It's a strong value of our society. It's a strong value of our civilization. And we should protect and defend those kinds of enduring institutions in our society.
Q: Did the President consult anyone else besides those who are pro his position? You gave us a long list this morning --
MR. McCLELLAN: Yes, actually, the --
Q: Was anyone against his premise?
MR. McCLELLAN: Actually, the President arrived at this decision in a very thoughtful and deliberate manner. He considered a wide variety of views on this issue. The White House Domestic Policy Council and the Counsel's Office was very involved in this process, at the direction of the President. The White House consulted constitutional scholars, academic scholars, and theologians, religious leaders, congressional leaders, state leaders, and others. So we looked at a wide variety of views and the President certainly took into consideration the views of the American people when he was looking at this matter. And then he essentially -- he essentially came to a decision over the weekend, but he made a final decision this morning to go ahead with this announcement.
Q: What does he think the penalty should be, they should go to jail if they break this law that eventually he hopes to have?
MR. McCLELLAN: The President believes that we should protect and defend the sanctity of marriage, Helen. That's what this is about. And there are people --
Q: They should go to jail?
MR. McCLELLAN: No, Helen, that's not the way the President is looking at it. The President is looking at this from making sure that activist judges and local officials don't redefine this enduring institution in our society.
Q: You say, "and the President believes it's important to protect institutions in our society." But I wonder if the American people deserve a little bit more of an explanation about what the downside of all of this is. Can you explain how the President arrived at this view? He talks frequently about his faith; is that a major component in arriving at his decision about gay marriage? What specifically would happen to our society, as Elisabeth alluded to --
MR. McCLELLAN: His beliefs and his principles.
Q: Hold on -- what specifically would happen to society if same-sex couples were allowed to marry?
MR. McCLELLAN: Well, that's why I talked about the values that we should stand up and defend. The President made it very clear in his remarks that this is an enduring institution of our civilization. It goes to the very fabric of our society when he talks about this issue.
Q: So the fabric of society would break down if men were allowed to marry other men and women other women?
MR. McCLELLAN: That's why the President believes that this is an important value and enduring institution to defend. And that's what -- so he's looking at this --
Q: What would happen to marriage if same-sex couples were allowed to marry? I just don't -- I'm trying to understand the President's thinking. Is this purely based on his religious faith? How does he arrive at this?
MR. McCLELLAN: This is based on principle, it's based on his long-held belief. And I would remind you that this is something that enjoys -- that protecting and defending the sanctity of marriage enjoys widespread support in this country.
Q: And I'd ask Democrats this, too.
MR. McCLELLAN: The congressional -- Congress overwhelmingly passed the Defense of Marriage Act to protect and defend the sanctity of marriage. But there's no assurances that activist judges won't seek to strike that down. And I would remind you that 38 states already have made it very clear that marriage is between a man and a woman.
Q: Scott, following up on that. On the faith issue, the President has talked about -- this is intertwined with faith, but the Bible has been hotly contested on this issue. Some are saying that it's not in the Bible; some are saying it is. Where in the Bible has the President found this specific --
MR. McCLELLAN: April, I think the President described it from his views about where his beliefs are, and the principle of this decision.
Q: He talks about faith a great deal. And he talks about he -- his foundation, his new foundation after 40 is based on faith. Where in the Bible --
MR. McCLELLAN: The President talked about how he came to the decision and why he came to this decision. He spelled out the very reasons for acting on this issue now.
Q: Okay, well, maybe I could rephrase the question. You say that the President has talked to theologians. What part of the Bible did they particularly focus in on to help the President to come up with --
MR. McCLELLAN: Well, I think they're actually religious leaders from across the spectrum, with a wide variety of views.
Q: But where did they focus in on in the Bible? I mean, because this is a hotly contested issue. Some people say it's in; some people say it's not in the Bible.
MR. McCLELLAN: Right, and you're welcome to religious leaders about that.
Q: We understand there's the issue of Sodom and Gomorrah in the Bible, but did he use that? We want to know.
MR. McCLELLAN: No, he talked about, in the Roosevelt Room, about the reasons how he came to this -- how he came to this decision -- Q I understand what you're saying, but we want to know where the foundation of faith is on this issue. Is it Sodom and Gomorrah? Is it some other part of the Bible?
MR. McCLELLAN: You can consult religious scholars if you want to know those issues.
Q: I have, and I'm asking you.
Q: Why do this now? And why isn't this an issue to be worked -- to work its way up through the courts?
MR. McCLELLAN: Well, actually, the President talked about it in his remarks. He talked about the events that are unfolding in Massachusetts and in San Francisco and in other areas, including in New Mexico. And in Massachusetts, you have a Supreme Court that has ruled on this issue. And the Supreme Court has said that by mid-May that the state should allow for the issuing of licenses to same-sex couples. And so that's within two months from now. In San Francisco, you have people that are simply ignoring the law. And so these events were unfolding.
It's also important to recognize that the constitutional process can take some time. It can go anywhere from three months to over 200 years, if you look at the 27th Amendment.
Q: Right, but we also have a U.S. Supreme Court. Was it the President's judgment that this would not make its way to the Supreme Court, and therefore --
MR. McCLELLAN: Well, in Massachusetts, it was a state issue. And so the Massachusetts Supreme Court ruled there's no appeal to the -- on the Massachusetts -- above the Massachusetts Supreme Court on that state matter. Now the legislature has the option of acting, but the legislature met and they chose not to act at this point in time. And so you have -- two months from now, you're going to have a state that will be forced to start allowing same-sex couples to marry.
And keep in mind, the President believes it's very important, I think when we have this discussion, to treat everybody with dignity and respect. It's -- but this is a principled decision about an enduring and lasting institution in our civilization. And that's why the President came to the decision that he did.
Q: But you're saying the judgment was made that this could not be resolved in the court system, that it would not make its way to the Supreme Court, that this was the only way to deal with this because the Supreme Court would never be able to definitively resolve this issue?
MR. McCLELLAN: I think the President spoke to that in his remarks. He said that the only recourse for the people now is to pursue a constitutional amendment.
Q: One last thing. You say that this will add clarity. It can take as long as seven years to take this -- to complete this process on a constitutional amendment. What happens in the meantime? How does this provide --
MR. McCLELLAN: There's another reason for acting, because we need to --
Q: How does this provide clarity? It seems to me that, in the meantime, the states can continue to act as they wish and you've got seven years of states allowing gay marriage. Does this do anything to stop that --
MR. McCLELLAN: Well, Jim, that's why I pointed out the widespread support in this country for protecting and defending the sanctity of marriage. And I pointed to the fact that 38 states have already passed measures to define marriage as between a man and a woman, and --
Q: But those are not the ones you're worried about; you're worried about the other states.
MR. McCLELLAN: Well, and, again, I think the support is across the country. More and more states have acted on this very issue. Go ahead, I'm sorry.
Q: Well, what happens in the meantime? I mean, while we're working on a constitutional amendment, while you're begging members of Congress to take this up -- about which many Republicans are skeptical -- what happens?
MR. McCLELLAN: And here you go to the very issue of why acting now. I mean, he spelled out the very reasons, some of which I mentioned. And it's also important to move as soon as possible on the constitutional process. And the first step is for Congress to act, and then it will go to state legislatures.
Q: But you're acknowledging we could have seven years of gay marriage in states that decide it's okay before we get a constitutional amendment, if it takes that long.
MR. McCLELLAN: I think the President is leading and making a principled decision on a very important issue, an issue of national importance. And he's going to continue to make it clear that this is an institution that we need to protect and defend, for the reasons that he stated. And it's important that that process begin now. But people -- obviously, in California there is discussion going on right now in the state about making sure that they're abiding by the California family code, making sure that individuals in San Francisco are abiding by that code.
Q: Scott, to follow up on that, if I might. Congressman Dreier -- sorry, Jacobo.
MR. McCLELLAN: Just jump in.
Q: Well, it follows on what you're saying now. Congressman Dreier says that a constitutional amendment is premature and the court system should be allowed to work in this case. Obviously, he's chairman of the Rules Committee and can control the flow of legislation on the floor. Is this a problem? Have you all talked to him about this?
MR. McCLELLAN: We have talked with congressional leaders. We are going to continue to talk with congressional leaders as we move forward on this issue. We will be working with them on specific language for an amendment. And the President, as you heard, urged Congress to move promptly on this very issue.
Q: The Democratic National Committee has criticized President Bush for the statement claiming that it's a political ploy in an election year.
MR. McCLELLAN: And? Do you have a question?
Q: Your comments.
MR. McCLELLAN: Well, that's why I talked about early on, how there -- you have to look at the events that are unfolding. There is confusion and division going on in this country right now. That is why we need to bring clarity to this issue of national importance. The President has made it very clear that this debate should be conducted in a civil manner. He said that in his very remarks. He said, "We should conduct this difficult debate in a manner worthy of our country, without bitterness or anger. In all that lies ahead, let us match strong conviction with kindness and goodwill and decency."
The President made it very clear that everybody should be treated with dignity and respect, but that this enduring institution is something that is important to defend, for the reasons that he spelled out. And when it comes to an issue of such national significance, it's important for leaders to make decisions; it's important for leaders to raise the level of discourse and work to conduct this discussion in a very civil way. And that's what the President is doing.
Q: Can I ask you a question on Haiti, or will you get back to me when --
MR. McCLELLAN: No, go ahead.
Q: President Aristide is making a call to the world to come to his help or his aid, claiming that the situation in Haiti has gone from bad to worse, and this could even propel Haitians to take to the sea to try to reach the United States.
MR. McCLELLAN: Well, a couple things. One, we remain actively engaged in diplomatic efforts to bring about a peaceful, negotiated, constitutional and democratic solution to the situation in Haiti. We continue to work very closely with the Caribbean Community, with the Organization of American States, with France and Canada and others. So we continue to remain committed to moving forward on the plan that has been presented to the political opposition and the government of Haiti.
Right now, the opposition is continuing to consider the plan that was presented to it. And we are waiting to hear back from them on that matter. But Secretary Powell was in contact with some of the political opposition late yesterday. In terms of the situation on Haitian people leaving, I mean, we've made our position very clear on that. And there -- we continue to carefully monitor that situation, but we have not seen any indication to indicate a surge in migration at this point.
Q: But if they leave, you will stop them and return them?
MR. McCLELLAN: We have a plan in place to stop any boats, and our position is very clear, that they will be returned to their country of -- from which they departed, absent any specific protection concerns. That's been our policy and that remains our policy.
Q: Back on gay marriage. What do you say to moderates in your own party who say that the President can no longer be taken seriously as a compassionate conservative, as he likes to call himself, by endorsing this kind of amendment?
MR. McCLELLAN: I don't know who is saying that, number one. But the President is someone -- well, who is that?
Q: Well, for one, there are some gay rights activists, Log Cabin Republicans, and more broadly, some --
MR. McCLELLAN: I think that people recognize that the President arrived at this decision based on his long-held beliefs and based on principle. And they recognize that the President is someone who believes that everybody in our society should be treated with respect and dignity -- he has always spoken out very forcefully on that matter -- and that while we may disagree on this issue, we can have a very civil discussion about it.
Q: Scott, since the campaign has now begun, and since there is now --
MR. McCLELLAN: It began for you all a long time ago. (Laughter.)
Q: Since there is now no reason why you cannot comment on Senator Kerry's comparison of service in the National Guard to dodging the draft in Canada, won't you ask Senator Kerry to apologize to the Guard and to all of the thousands of combat veterans in Vietnam that he defamed in his testimony to Congress? MR. McCLELLAN: These kind of campaign questions ought to be directed to the campaign, Les. I think the campaign has addressed this matter.
Q: Wait a minute, I have one follow-up on your area of expertise. Do you believe that the predominantly Democrat big-media coverage of Mr. Kerry's association with Jane Fonda and their coverage of Mr. Clinton's draft evasion has been anywhere nearly as extensive as their questioning of the Bush National Guard records?
MR. McCLELLAN: There are plenty of media critics, and I'm not one.
Q: Just to follow up a little bit on what Dana asked a minute ago --
MR. McCLELLAN: Maybe there are not enough, but -- just kidding. (Laughter.)
Q: Trying to put this in broader context -- the campaign thus far has been about job creation; it's been about the war in Iraq, the intelligence leading up to the war in Iraq. These are things the President talks about from time to time. How important is a constitutional amendment to him? Is this something that he is going to be thinking about a lot?
MR. McCLELLAN: I think he said how important it is. He said it's an issue of national importance. That's why he came to the decision that he did. But the two biggest priorities before this country are winning the war on terrorism and strengthening our economy. And this President is leading and acting decisively on those highest of priorities. He is also leading and acting decisively on other priorities.
Q: So much is going on, as far as whereabouts of Osama bin Laden is concerned. And Vice President last week in Tampa gave a great speech, and he also said that Osama bin Laden is still in hiding and war on terror is still continuing. And also CIA Director Tenet, he made a secret visit to Pakistan earlier this month, and at the same time, the President also keeps saying, he's right that we have to win war on terrorism. But we are now in 29 months after terrorists attacked United States. Why can't we find him? Who is hiding him and who's supporting him?
MR. McCLELLAN: I would just remind you that we are making significant progress in the war on terrorism. The war does continue and it requires continued strong leadership to confront these dangers. We have already -- we are in the process of dismantling and disrupting the al Qaeda network. There are two-thirds -- some two-thirds of the leadership has already been captured or otherwise dealt with, or otherwise brought to justice. We will continue to pursue others who are members of al Qaeda and bring them to justice, as well.
Q: Scott, you said --
MR. McCLELLAN: I'll come to you next. I skipped Karen earlier.
Q: Is the administration planning on lifting the travel sanction on Libya? And if so, or if not, will the timing be at all affected by the Libyan Prime Minister's comments about Lockerbie?
MR. McCLELLAN: A couple of things. One, in terms of -- well, one, we have already made clear that Libya is making important progress in their efforts to dismantle their WEAPONS OF MASS DESTRUCTION programs. And we have said that their good faith will be returned with the good faith of the United States, and that as they take these important steps, that they will be able to realize better relations with the United States. And in terms of any specific steps, we will keep you posted, obviously.
I think in regards to the comments that you referred to earlier, I would just point out that Libya made it very clear in their letter to the United Nations that it "accepts responsibility for the actions of its officials," on that very matter. And I would expect Libya to make clear that it is still -- that that is still their position.
Q: Do you consider those comments a setback to the progress that has been made --
MR. McCLELLAN: Well, again, like I said, I think Libya's position was stated in their letter to the United Nations. And we would expect Libya to make clear that that remains their position.
Q: Do you want a retraction?
MR. McCLELLAN: Go ahead.
Q: My question is on terrorism, as well. There are two audio tapes now being broadcast by the Arabic language television stations in the Middle East, Al-Arabiya and Al-Jazeera. The voice on the tapes is believed to be that of Osama bin Laden's prime Lieutenant, Ayman al Zawahiri, who makes some rather dramatic claims, one of which is that contrary to what the administration is saying, two-thirds of the al Qaeda have not been captured or killed. He says the al Qaeda is still operating from Afghanistan. And the question is, now that the hunt for Osama bin Laden intensifies, does the President believe that the capture of Osama bin Laden --
MR. McCLELLAN: I think it's the hunt for terrorists continues.
Q: Okay. We know that also specifically there is a movement, even by Pakistan -- announced to go after Osama and Mullah Omar. Does the President believe that the capture of one or two of these people will break the back of the al Qaeda and stop the terrorism --
MR. McCLELLAN: I think the President has made it very clear in his remarks that this is a war that will continue. The war on terrorism is not going to be won overnight. It is an ongoing war. And he is strongly committed to bringing each and every terrorist in this global terrorist network to justice. And we will continue to pursue all members of al Qaeda and bring them to justice.
And, obviously -- you mentioned two leaders -- we continue to pursue those individuals and we expect that they will be brought to justice, as well.
Q: But having said that, I mean, what would it do to the terrorist movement to capture those two? Certainly those are the two most important. They're not just figureheads of the terrorists --
MR. McCLELLAN: Yes, but the war on terror is broader than just any two individuals. And we will continue to pursue this war as long as it takes to win it.
Q: Does the President support -- propose specific language for an amendment? Or will he support the existing language already before Congress?
MR. McCLELLAN: Well, obviously, we want to work closely with Congress throughout this process. We will work closely with them on the specific language. He has indicated that Congresswoman Musgrave's legislation meets some of the principles he has talked about.
Q: Will the President press for a vote in Congress on this before the recess, before the end of the year?
MR. McCLELLAN: I think you heard from the President, and he urged Congress to act promptly. And you've heard from me that I think we should -- that Congress should move as quickly as possible. As I indicated, sometimes the constitutional process can take some time.
Q: The CIA apparently was given information about one of the
MR. McCLELLAN: I think, one, you're referring to some reports of matters that the independent 9/11 Commission is looking into. We are working very closely and cooperatively with that commission, so that they can complete their work in a timely manner. It's important for the commission to move forward in a timely manner, so that if there is information that can help us prevent future attacks, we have that information. And so as we continue to work closely with the 9/11 Commission, obviously they will put out a report once their work is done. I think in terms of specific matters with previous administrations, or prior to this administration, you can direct those questions to the appropriate agency.
Q: Well, just in general. Here was a man who was identified by German authorities. The CIA was told about him. And then he was able to enter this country and he was not followed at all.
MR. McCLELLAN: Let me just remind you -- in fact, we're coming up on the first anniversary of the creation of the Department of Homeland Security. There are a number of steps we have taken since September 11th to improve our intelligence-gathering, to improve our intelligence-sharing of information. The President spoke specifically about the importance of renewing the Patriot Act. Those are important tools to help us prevent attacks from happening in the first place. So there are a number of steps that this administration has taken to address that matter.
Q: -- part of those things in the Patriot Act?
MR. McCLELLAN: Are part of what things?
Q: Those efforts to correct the situation --
MR. McCLELLAN: There's a lot of -- there's improved intelligence-sharing within the Patriot Act, and it's important that it be renewed.
Q: You said that as governor of Texas he would not have supported a civil unions law. But am I correct in assuming that now he would like to see an America where states can enact civil union laws for homosexuals, but not call it marriage? Is that correct?
MR. McCLELLAN: Well, this debate centers on marriage, and the definition of marriage. And some people have sought to redefine this sacred institution. And that's why the President has come out strongly in support of protecting the sanctity of marriage.
Q: I just want to know if maybe you can explain what the President's view is as to the difference between a civil union and marriage. Because many people might argue that in the eyes of government, even heterosexuals married is really just a civil contract between those two people to protect them legally and financially --
MR. McCLELLAN: I think he defined marriage. He believes marriage is a sacred institution between a man and a woman. That's how he would define it.
Q: Is there a difference that goes beyond semantics?
MR. McCLELLAN: Legal arrangements that states want to enter into, they certainly have that right. The President has made that very clear. This is a debate about marriage, and an enduring and lasting institution in this country.
Q: On Russia, President Putin dismissed his cabinet today. I wonder how this step is viewed from the White House.
MR. McCLELLAN: I'll take a look at those reports. Let me take a look at those reports and get you something more on that.
Q: Before the President issued his statement this morning on gay marriage, did he discuss it with the Vice President? And secondly, is there a particular reason why he didn't make this announcement last night, during his major speech?
MR. McCLELLAN: The President made a final decision to proceed with this announcement this morning. I've already indicated that.
Q: And did he discuss it with the Vice President?
MR. McCLELLAN: But, obviously, recent events have been having an influence on his decision. And the Vice President is very well-aware of the decisions the President makes.
Q: One more on the threat the President sees from gay marriage. What is, in the President's view, a greater threat to this enduring institution of marriage, a same-sex couple establishing a stable marriage, or the staggering divorce rate, the out-of-wedlock birth level and travesties like Britney Spear's marital fiasco? (Laughter.) What --
MR. McCLELLAN: There are so many different things in there, but --
Q: And then what is he going to do -- which is the greater threat?
MR. McCLELLAN: I think -- look back to the President's State of the Union address, and he talked about the importance of values that we hold so dearly in this country. And he talked about the importance of changing our culture, and ushering in a responsibility era. He's long held those views.
Q: So he would like to see a lower divorce rate, lower out-of-wedlock births, and Britney Spears behave herself? (Laughter.)
MR. McCLELLAN: Well, actually, I think if you look at some of the steps that we've taken in the welfare reform reauthorization, we have proposals in there to help strengthen marriage and help individuals.
Q: Scott, can I just ask again, the same sort of question? If he supports allowing the states to choose civil unions, how does a civil union not weaken society --
MR. McCLELLAN: Well, again, and let me --
Q: -- in the way a gay marriage does?
MR. McCLELLAN: -- and let me make clear, he has said that he would have opposed it for his state of Texas. And what he has said and always said is that states have the right to enter into their own legal arrangements. That's what he's made clear. When you're saying, support things, that's not quite the way he looks at it.
Q: Does he feel that allowing civil -- the states to choose civil unions would weaken society?
MR. McCLELLAN: I think that you have some 38 states -- this issue is about marriage, Elisabeth. This is about the definition of marriage, and he believes strongly that it is a sacred institution, and that it's important to protect it.
Q: What's the difference between a civil union and marriage? Is it religious involvement -- is it because marriage is --
MR. McCLELLAN: Well, I think different states have different --
Q: What does the President think?
MR. McCLELLAN: -- different benefits that they look to address.
Q: But what does the President think is the difference between a civil union and marriage?
MR. McCLELLAN: Marriage is a sacred institution between a man and a woman. I don't know how I can make it more clearly that the President has said that repeatedly.
Q: Scott, may I follow on Haiti, please?
MR. McCLELLAN: Go ahead.
Q: On Haiti, you had a phrase about that, the boat people would be turned away absent a specific protection plan. What do you mean by that?
MR. McCLELLAN: Well, that's our long-held policy, and that remains the same.
Q: Does that mean if they're in danger in --
MR. McCLELLAN: I'm not going to get into speculating on different matters. Our policy remains the same. And that -- I was just spelling out what our policy is. That's what it is. Q Scott, one more on Haiti -- possible evacuation of Americans, is there a contingency?
MR. McCLELLAN: I'm sorry?
Q: If it comes to the need to evacuate?
MR. McCLELLAN: I'm not going to speculate about anything down the -- that may or may not happen down the road. I think that the Pentagon talked about, yesterday, how they sent in a security team to help protect the embassy and protect the people in the embassy. And so they've made that clear.
Q: Scott, back on Haiti again, though, real quick. Apparently, the opposition is talking about, in Haiti, that they're not going to accept the negotiation unless Jean Bertrand-Aristide steps down. Aristide has already said that he would die before he relinquishes power. What is the White House concern about this right now?
MR. McCLELLAN: That's why we're having discussions with the government and with the political opposition. We're having those discussions directly with them. And the plan that we have put forward, along with the Caribbean Community and the Organization of American States and France, Canada, and others, calls for a series of confidence-building measures on the part of both sides -- the political opposition and the government of Haiti. It calls for them to live up to their commitments that they have previously agreed to.
Q: But, realistically, do you think that by tomorrow that both sides can come together?
MR. McCLELLAN: You're asking me to speculate about things.
Q: Yes, I am --
MR. McCLELLAN: We're continuing to work to resolve this in a peaceful way, and through a negotiated process.
Q: What happens after tomorrow, once the deadline is up?
MR. McCLELLAN: April, now you're just asking me to speculate. I'm telling you where the process is, and how we're working to bring about a peaceful resolution. We continue to call for an end to violence in Haiti, and that's where things stand.
Q: Scott, I just want to come back to where I started, because you seemed to characterize my question as asking if the President's views on marriage being between a man and a woman had changed. That's not what I asked. I was simply stating, talking about the application of his views, when did he cease seeing it as a state issue and begin seeing it as a federal issue?
MR. McCLELLAN: And again, I said that he's always viewed marriage as a sacred institution between a man and a woman. And I will keep -- I would point back to some of what he said in terms of the -- one, I'm not accepting the premise the way you stated the question -- but point back to what he said in his remarks when it came to the issue of other states having to recognize laws of other states.
Q: Also, this would be the first time since the Prohibition era that a constitutional amendment had been sought that would actually restrict rights in America. Though there may be some people in this room who remembers how well the Prohibition amendment went down, does the President really want to be the first President since the Prohibition era to deny people rights?
MR. MCCLELLAN: Again, I think the President addressed this very issue in his remarks when he talked about how we are a free, just and tolerant society, and he talked about the importance of respecting all individuals, but that this is about an enduring institution of national importance.
Q: Thank you.
END 1:36 P.M. EST
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