Remarks and a Question-and-Answer Session With Reporters
May 17, 1988
INF Treaty and the Trade Bill
The President. I have a statement here, a brief statement. First, I am pleased that Senate Majority Leader Bob Byrd and Republican Leader Bob Dole have agreed to take up consideration of the treaty to eliminate an entire class of U.S. and Soviet intermediate-range nuclear missiles. This treaty, which was signed last December, has placed U.S.-Soviet arms discussions on a path that goes beyond arms control and toward real nuclear arms reduction. I am both hopeful and confident that after careful consideration the Senate will agree that this treaty is a diplomatic milestone and will give its consent to United States participation.
Second, the March trade figures were good news -- the best news on this front since March of 1985. With the trade deficit dropping $4.1 billion and with exports up $5.4 billion, this is clear evidence that the trade balance is improving as our economy continues to grow. Now, several days ago I received a trade bill from Congress, and my message to Congress on this matter is currently under review, and I expect to issue it within a couple of days. But today's news emphasizes what we've been saying all along: that this is not the time to be imposing restrictions on trade or reducing incentives for free, open markets or closing job opportunities. We want more jobs, not less, and we want a job market open to all working men and women in this country. I'm ready to roll up my sleeves and go to work with the Congress once again in crafting a trade bill that will continue this trend of more job creation and greater economic growth.
General Noriega of Panama
Q. Mr. President, why have you authorized the dropping of the drug indictment against General Noriega, and doesn't that give the Democrats ammunition for the Presidential campaign?
The President. Not if they'll wait until there's something to be announced. We're negotiating right now, and therefore I can't comment on negotiations that are underway. It would be foolish to do so. Some things you have to keep to yourself when you're arguing with someone else. But we're not -- as I say, negotiations are underway. There has been no decision made on some of the things that are being discussed, and I have to say that I think that much of what many of you've been dealing with as a story is based on some kind of leaks or misinformation because there are no facts to sustain it.
Q. If I could clear up that one point, though, sir, haven't you authorized the dropping of the indictment in return for something on Mr. Noriega's part?
The President. As I have to say, when you're negotiating -- and I did that for 25 years as a union officer in labor-management relations -- you don't go out and talk about what you're negotiating.
Attorney General Edwin Meese III
Q. Mr. President, now that the conservatives, personified by the Washington Times, have jumped ship on Attorney General Edwin Meese. And the loss of morale in the Department and loss of respect for the Justice Department in the country and its integrity -- are you still backing Meese and have total confidence in him, or are you going to ease him out?
The President. No, I have complete confidence in him, and I know -- --
The President. Because there have been a great many allegations made, but nothing has been proven. And I've seen no evidence of any wrongdoing on his part of the kind that is inferred in the allegations that they kicked around. And right now, on this particular thing, I think you'd have to talk to him about that. I think there's more than meets the eye with regard to this latest departure.
Q. What do you mean?
The President. What?
Q. What are you referring to? Do you mean that Eastland [former Director of the Office of Public Affairs at the Justice Department] did something to undermine the Attorney General?
The President. No, he made a statement himself that there was no animus of anything that had happened. But I think that you should talk to the Attorney General about that and what happened.
Q. Well, is that the role of the press officer -- to be a defense attorney?
The President. Well, once again, somebody speculated that that's what was the reason there. And I think that you should talk to the Attorney General.
Democracy in Panama
Q. Mr. President, if you can't discuss the negotiations with Noriega, I'd like to ask you, however, about your policy goal. You have said in the past the goal was to see that Noriega step down from power. And at various times you've talked about leaving the country and various times you haven't. Is your goal to see that not only Noriega leaves power but that none of his cronies continue to exercise power in his name?
The President. I've said I wouldn't comment, but I'll make one comment on that. What we're interested in seeing is a restoration of democracy in Panama. It didn't start with this particular man. But some time back, under another one, the commanding officer of the National Guard in Panama suddenly began to take precedence over the President of Panama and dictate to the Government. We feel that it's time that democracy return to Panama, and this is what we're negotiating toward.
Q. Well, sir, if someone controls the Government -- if Noriega pulls strings behind the scenes, is that acceptable to you?
The President. Not if we have reinstituted democracy there in Panama. But, again, I can't comment further on this. We are in the midst of real negotiations.
Q. But sir, the fear is that you're selling out. The fear is that you are going to agree to a deal which has a fig leaf of some restoration of democracy but, in fact, leaves Noriega in power.
The President. Oh, I know. I've been reading that and hearing it in the newscasts -- --
Q. Well, when you won't comment, sir -- --
The President. -- -- and no, I'm not going to back away from what we're trying to do.
Q. Well, sir -- --
Drug Trafficking and Aid to the Contras
Q. Mr. President, there have been charges also that this government was aware of drug running involved with the possibly illegal contra supply operation. Can you tell us and the congressional committees that have been investigating that there was no involvement by this government, the CIA, or any other agencies of this government in running drugs on the same airplanes that were bringing weapons to the contras? And are you investigating, if you didn't know about it, to see whether there is any truth -- --
The President. All that I knew about any of this, until the indictment came down with evidently evidence enough to get to an indictment -- that previously there had been some rumors he was providing information on -- situation in Central America, I think, to our intelligence people at the CIA. Some rumors came up about possible drug and -- but no one ever received or could get any evidence to substantiate those rumors. And then this latest thing happened, and I don't know whether he just had started or whether there was anything really going on.
Q. But, sir, there are other charges that there was other involvement by this government in drugs on the same airplanes that were delivering weapons to the contras beyond Noriega. Did you know anything about that? Is there any truth to that?
The President. No. No, the only thing I knew was when we operated a sting operation and found that the Sandinistas were shipping out drugs.
Q. Well -- --
The President. And unfortunately, the pilot of that plane in that particular sting operation was shot down in the streets of an American city shortly after the -- --
Q. But are you checking into these latest allegations?
The President. Yes, we are.
Q. Mr. President, how can you, given the hard line that you took at the very beginning in the situation in Panama -- saying that Noriega had to leave the country, saying once that the Dominican Republic wasn't far enough -- and our recognition of Mr. Delvalle as the President, how can you do anything in the way of a compromise without appearing to back down from your original policy goals?
The President. Again, you're asking me -- that would lead into what's being talked about, and I can only tell you that we're not going to just whitewash anyone.
Q. Mr. President -- --
The President. I suggested two more. So, three, and then -- --
Q. Mr. President, you have repeatedly denied that astrology played any role in the setting of policy, but you have ducked the question as to whether or not it played a role in the setting of schedule. A number of aides, besides Mr. Regan, have indicated that astrology did play a role in the setting of schedule, including the timing of the signing of the INF treaty. Why did you allow that to go on, sir?
The President. It didn't go on. And this whole thing is built around an incident in which it was printed that this had to do with the scheduling of one of my operations. Well, it didn't happen that way at all. And you know something else: It didn't have anything to do with me being sworn in as Governor, taking the oath of office at midnight -- or 1 minute after midnight. Back when I first was elected Governor -- what I was doing that time was because once I became Governor-elect the incumbent Governor whom I defeated started filling up the ranks of term appointments and judges, to the place where I would have had a government all set up long before I got in. Well, I couldn't do much about it. He was still in office till I was signed in. I asked the people who'd been in charge of my campaign, Bill Roberts, when was the earliest that I could become Governor. And he said, well, the minute after midnight, the night before the inaugural ceremonies. And I said, I'm going to get sworn in a minute after midnight. And I got sworn in and at least had headed off a half a day's appointments that he wouldn't have time, because the next afternoon I was inaugurated.
Q. You're talking about a couple of specific incidents. Are you denying that either you or Mrs. Reagan, though, used astrology on any occasion during your time here at the White House to help set the schedule for trips or the signing of the INF treaty? I must say this goes against what a lot of aides are telling us, sir.
The President. Well, no, I'm only going to tell you that one thing, and that is that after I'd been shot, which was quite a traumatic experience for my wife -- --
Q. And you?
The President. -- -- and it was not a -- no, I was confident I was going to be all right. [Laughter] Other people can't know that. But she was getting a great many calls from friends, and a friend called and said that -- or wished that he'd known what I was going to do that day and so forth because of -- he mentioned someone, that all the signs were bad and everything else. And Nancy was -- it was a trauma that didn't go away easily. And when suddenly things of the same kind just for a short period there -- when I was booked for something of the same kind where the accident occurred, why, she would ask, what does it look like now? And no changes were ever made on the basis of whether I did nor did not conduct this -- --
Q. But why something like the signing of an INF treaty, sir?
The President. What?
Q. Why something like the signing -- --
The President. No, it wasn't. Nothing of that kind was going on. This was all, once again, smoke and mirrors, and we made no decisions on it, and we're not binding our lives to this. And I don't mean to offend anyone who does believe in it or who engages in it seriously -- --
Q. Do you believe in it?
The President. What?
Q. Do you believe in it?
The President. I don't guide my life by it, but I won't answer the question the other way because I don't know enough about it to say is there something to it or not.
Q. Do you think the attempt on your life could have been prevented?
The President. No, this friend thought that had I been told that that was supposed to be a horrendous time for me, that I might have done something -- well, we didn't.
Attorney General Edwin Meese III
Q. Mr. President, you have often spoke of your belief in the integrity and honesty of your Attorney General. I'd like to ask you another question, which is: Don't you think that all of these resignations and the difficulty of filling the job and the attacks from so many directions are -- even if he is a man of integrity and ability -- don't you think this is getting in the way of the Justice Department doing its job? And isn't that a reason for him to step aside on those grounds?
The President. No, because I think that there's been a wave -- and for quite a long time, and not just with him, but with others -- in which accusation or allegation is taken to mean conviction. And there's been too much of that. In this land of ours, you are innocent until you are proven guilty beyond a reasonable doubt. And nothing has been proven. These allegations continue to be made. This has been true of others. This was true of Ray Donovan [former Secretary of Labor]. And his poignant line, I think, fit the situation. When he was declared totally innocent of any wrongdoing at all, he said, ``Where do I go to get back my reputation?'' This also applies to Beggs, who finally stood up and resigned from NASA because of things he was supposed to have done before he came into government and was found innocent of every -- there wasn't an iota of any kind of support for any of the accusations.
Q. Are you saying then, sir, that unless Mr. Meese would be indicted that he should remain in office? Or can there be lesser allegations that don't require an indictment that would be grounds for him stepping aside?
The President. I think that for him to step aside would be what he himself once said: that he would then live for the rest of his life under this cloud, with nothing that had ever been proven.
Q. Sir, what about the -- --
The President. But you had recognized her all right. So, you're the last one.
General Noriega of Panama
Q. Thank you, sir. One more about Noriega. The combination of sanctions and negotiations have been going on for an awfully long time, and it seems as if the United States looks progressively weaker. Aren't you a little angry that Noriega has managed to humiliate and embarrass the United States?
The President. Well, we had hoped that we could maybe make it possible for the people of Panama themselves to exert some pressure and do something, and I guess having run into their own armed troops willing to shoot, and shooting, kind of cooled that down. So, we're continuing to negotiate. And our goal remains the same.
Q. But, sir, are you not angry about the fact that the United States has been looking so weak when it's gone up against this man?
The President. Whether I'm angry or not doesn't count. On the situation in Panama, I will not comment on the negotiations that are going on in Panama. And at the appropriate time, I expect to have a full statement and make it to the American people.
Q. Will that be soon?
The President. I wish I knew.
Q. Mr. President, how badly have you been hurt by -- --
Q. Do you have a message for Don Regan [former Chief of Staff to the President]?
Free and Fair Trade
Q. Some people are saying, Mr. President, that if the trade bill were to be overridden by Congress the effect of the trade bill would be similar to Smoot-Hawley. Why is it that the administration now is basically saying that it's only the plant closings provision that's wrong with this trade bill, that otherwise you would support it?
The President. Well, that is the main thing. There are other things in there that I don't think are helpful or belong there. There's been a habit of adding pork items to almost everything that's up on the Hill, and that's true there. But this is the main one.
And when all of my colleagues at the economic summit from the other countries, the heads of state of the countries with which we trade -- when they call what we have seen here in the last 5\1/2\ years -- called the American miracle -- and when I have talked to them, they've asked me for questions about what are some of the things that we had done. I found out in answering their questions that they themselves deplore the fact that in their countries the rules and regulations imposed on government -- including things like this and rules about hiring and firing -- are part of what they say is holding them back and keeping them from having the kind of economic recovery we have.
Q. Ready for Gorbachev?
Q. Has Regan hurt your reputation? Has Regan hurt your reputation? Has Regan damaged your reputation, Mr. President?
The President. Well, I was worried about his.
Note: The exchange began at 3:49 p.m. in the Briefing Room at the White House.