THE WHITE HOUSE
Office of the Press Secretary
|For Immediate Release
||June 20, 1999
INTERVIEW OF THE PRESIDENT
BY WOLF BLITZER, CNN LATE EDITION
Hyatt Regency Hotel
4:27 P.M. (L)
Q Mr. President, thank you so much for joining us on this very
special Late Edition, from here in Cologne.
There have been reports that President Yeltsin has been ill,
erratic, that his behavior has been shaky. You just met with him a little
while ago; what's your impression?
THE PRESIDENT: Well, his behavior was neither erratic, nor shaky
today. He was strong, clear, forceful, and looking to the future. We
actually had quite a good meeting. We got a lot done. We set out an agenda
to continue to work on reducing the nuclear threat, to continue to work on
reducing the likelihood of any cooperation of Russian entities with Iran's
missile technology development, with working to help Russia comply with the
IMF and get its economy going strongly again. And, obviously, we talked about
our commitment to fully implement the agreements we made over Kosovo.
So today, all I can tell you is I had good personal experience.
He was clear, concise and direct and strong.
Q But a lot of people were concerned when the Russians sent
those 150 or 200 soldiers into Pristina so secretively. With the Russians
still having thousands of nuclear warheads, should Americans be concerned
about the security, the safety of that nuclear arsenal, if there's a problem
civilian and military control of the Russian military?
THE PRESIDENT: Well, so far I can only tell you what
our experience is, now in its six and a half years. We've worked
very well with the Russian military to implement the system that
was set up, actually, before I became President, although we've
tried to strengthen it -- to strengthen the Russian security over
nuclear weapons, to strengthen security over other materials --
President Yeltsin and I agreed last year to destroy 50 tons of
plutonium arising out of nuclear operations. We have great
confidence in that, and it's working quite well. I have no
reason to believe that it won't continue to do so.
Q But will you concede, though, that the dash for
the airport in Pristina, and the grabbing hold of that piece of
territory helped them get a better deal for their peacekeepers in
Kosovo than would have been the case if they had not done so?
THE PRESIDENT: I'm not sure that's right, for the
following reason: I felt it was important, myself -- and I told
all of our people this, and several of our NATO allies -- that
Russia have a different role in Kosovo, because of the importance
of making clear our common commitment to protect civilians, both
the Kosovar Albanians who are coming home and the Serbs who
remain. Therefore, I thought it was important for Russia to have
its forces in more than one of these sectors. And of course, as
you know now, they'll be working with us and with the Germans and
So they may believe that, the Russians may believe
that. But in my own mind, I had already determined that if our
allies would go along, they should be in more than one sector.
Q But not necessarily in control of the airport,
which originally was going to be the strategic headquarters for
THE PRESIDENT: Yes, but now the division of labor they
have worked out at the airport is quite acceptable to us and
guarantees that the mission can go forward. So I think that's
the most important thing.
We have to -- every decision we made, including the
agreements made with the Russians, had one thing uppermost in
their minds: Will the mission succeed? That is, today it's a
very happy day -- the Serbian forces will go out on schedule, the
last of them. We have about 20,000 of our NATO peacekeepers in
there; 62,000 of the Kosovars have already come home -- some of
them before we wanted them to, because of the de-mining
operations. So I feel very good about where we're going with
this now, and I'm leaving here with real confidence that we are
going to succeed in achieving all of our objectives.
Q But you have to be concerned about the potential
for the KLA, the Kosovo Liberation Army -- the revenge, the
hatred, the fact that -- they're not going to be satisfied with
autonomy. They're going to want full independence from Serbia.
The potential for danger to those U.S. troops is very, very real.
THE PRESIDENT: There is a potential for danger for all
troops, from both disgruntled Kosovar Albanians, or disgruntled
or frightened Serbs in Kosovo. But I am encouraged that the
leaders of the KLA have now signed on to the commitment to
demilitarize. They've agreed to put away their uniforms; to give
up their big weapons, their non-pistol weapons; to do everything
we have asked them to do.
Might there be individuals or small groups who are full
of anger and seek revenge? Of course. And we'll have to be very
vigilant, just as we've had to be vigilant in Bosnia.
I also think we're going to have to work hard to take
initiative, to try to take some of that venom out of the
atmosphere. When Elie Wiesel, our Nobel laureate who survived
the Holocaust, came back from the tour I asked him to take of the
camps, he talked about how troubled he was by the children, the
families, how much we needed to work on that, and how hard we'd
have to work to get people, religious leaders and others in there
to try to get people to turn away from revenge.
But this is a problem everywhere where such things
occur. And you'd look at these hideous accounts that are just
now coming out, even worse than we imagined, about the mass
killings and the graves and the unusual, almost unimaginable,
cruelty. So it will take them some time to get through that, and
we're going to work with them.
Q You know, some in the U.S. military, though, are
concerned that just as -- when the U.S., when President Reagan
sent troops into Lebanon, there were high expectations. When you
sent troops into Somalia, there were high expectations. Things
could go sour quickly. Is that realistic, or are you taking
certain steps that will prevent another Lebanon or Somalia?
THE PRESIDENT: Well, I think we learned a lot about
that. And when we went to Bosnia, where all the same things were
present -- remember, we'd had a quarter of a million people
killed; we'd had 2.5 million refugees; we had all those horrible
internment camps -- all the hideous, awful stories we're hearing
now out of Kosovo we had in Bosnia for a longer period of time.
So we did a lot of extra work on security. And we were
quite careful about how we defined our mission and how we carried
it out, based on lessons learned both in Lebanon and in Somalia.
And so we'll try to carry those lessons through. I
can't tell the American people there will not be any violent
incident, that no American will ever be harmed or killed. But I
can say that we have learned the lessons of the last several
years, and I think what we are doing is profoundly important.
Q In your Oval Office address, you declared victory.
Some of your critics, though, say that as long as President
Slobodan Milosevic is in power, there is no victory.
THE PRESIDENT: Well, that's two different things. Let
me first say that when I spoke to the American people, I said we
had three objectives: to reverse the ethnic cleansing, and bring
the Kosovar Albanians home -- we're doing that; 62,000 are
already back -- to do it in a way that would keep our Alliance
together -- we're stronger than we ever were; and that I would
seek a partnership with Russia as we had in Bosnia -- we have now
formalized that partnership, so that even though our
relationships with Russia were quite strained during this period
of the conflict, I think that we're actually in a position to
have a stronger relationship with Russia in the future than we
had before the conflict started. And so I feel good about that.
So that is victory.
Now, do I think the Serbian people would be better off
without Mr. Milosevic? You bet I do. He has been indicted by
the War Crimes Tribunal, and every day now we see the vivid
pictures which graphically demonstrate that it was even worse
than we imagined. There is no statute of limitations on that.
The Serbian -- the leader of the Serbian Church has now called
for him to step aside. And I certainly hope that will happen,
and we have time to focus on that. But first, we've got to do
the mission. We've got to bring the folks home in safety and
Q Well, what the critics also say is that the U.S.
and the NATO allies have done nothing to go after other leading
indicted war criminals -- Serbs, Ratko Mladic, Radovan Karadzic,
Arkan. Why should President Milosevic be any more concerned than
they are? They're all still free men.
THE PRESIDENT: Well, in our sector in Bosnia, we have
arrested people who were indicted, and so have the British, and
we have worked with them. And I think that would be a big
mistake for Mr. Milosevic now. We may not have an extradition
agreement with Serbia. But he -- as long as he remains at large,
there is no statute of limitations. And if I were in his
position, I wouldn't take too much comfort from that. But the
best thing that can happen for the Serbian people is if he were
no longer president.
Q And you think that's realistic, that that could
happen anytime soon?
THE PRESIDENT: Well, I think that I shouldn't comment
on that right now. But I think that there's -- with the church
leaders calling for him to step down, with the people in the
opposition in Serbia calling for him to do so, and with the
commitment we have made as allies to support humanitarian aid to
the Serbs, but no reconstruction aid as long as he's there, I
think that's a pretty clear message.
Q You know about the reports that you've signed an
intelligence finding to actively seek to undermine his regime?
THE PRESIDENT: I don't comment on those things. I
Q I knew you wouldn't, but I figured I would ask
Let's move on to talk about -- under the category of
"now the truth can be told." When you gave the order to launch
the air strikes, did you ever believe in your wildest imagination
it would take 78 days, and all the devastation that it did take,
to finally declare a victory?
THE PRESIDENT: I'll tell you what I thought. I
thought that there was maybe a 50-percent chance it would be over
in a week -- because once he knew we would do it, I thought he
would remember Bosnia, and I thought he would understand what we
could do. But I knew that if he decided to take the punishment
of the air campaign, it could go on quite a long while, because
he would be trying all along to divide the allies, or to bring
pressure from the outside, to try to find some way to bring it to
And so I told everybody when we started, I said, look,
if we start this, and it doesn't work out in two or three days,
we've got to be prepared to go on.
I knew that we had, because of the facts of this case,
the capacity -- with the sophisticated weaponry and the skill of
our pilots -- I knew we had the capacity to essentially take down
the military apparatus and the economic apparatus supporting it.
But I knew it could take quite a long time. I didn't have any
specific deadline, but I knew it could take quite a long time.
Q Mr. President, some of your aides are now talking
about a Clinton doctrine in foreign policy, in the aftermath of
this war against Yugoslavia. Is there, in your mind, a Clinton
THE PRESIDENT: Well, I think there's an important
principle here that I hope will be now upheld in the future --
and not just by the United States, not just by NATO, but also by
the leading countries of the world, through the United Nations.
And that is that while there may well be a great deal of ethnic
and religious conflict in the world -- some of it might break out
into wars -- that whether within or beyond the borders of a
country, if the world community has the power to stop it, we
ought to stop genocide and ethnic cleansing. People ought --
innocent civilians ought not to be subject to slaughter because
of their religious or ethnic or racial or tribal heritage.
That is what we did, but took too long in doing, in
Bosnia. That is what we did, and are doing, in Kosovo. That is,
frankly, what we failed to do in Rwanda, where so many died so
quickly -- and what I hope very much we'll be able to do in
Africa, if it ever happens there again.
Q All right. Let's move on to some domestic issues.
Guns -- a big subject this past week. Do you really believe it's
realistic, it's appropriate, to register all guns in the United
States? And if that were done, would that stop the violence?
THE PRESIDENT: Well, you asked two questions.
Realistic? In this Congress, perhaps not. Appropriate? Sure --
we register cars, and if we did register them, it would be easier
to track sales, and easier to do comprehensive background checks.
But that's not what I asked the Congress to do. All I
asked the Congress to do was to close the loophole for sales at
gun shows and flea markets, so we could do the same background
checks we now do at gun stores. And do I think that would make
America a less violent place? Yes, I think there would be less
crime with guns if that happened.
We already -- under the Brady Bill, we've stopped
400,000 improper sales. And we also have a 25-year low in our
crime rate, and violent crime coming down, on average, even
slightly more than that. So do I think violent crime would go
down more? Absolutely I do.
Q And the registration you're going to hold off on
for the time being?
THE PRESIDENT: Yes. I mean, if we can't close the gun
show loophole, we're certainly not going to pass that.
But let me ask you this -- and that doesn't have
anything to do with the right to keep and bear arms. We have --
there's a constitutional right to travel in America, enshrined by
the Supreme Court as a constitutional right. No one believes
that registering our cars, or proving that we know how to drive
them, undermines our constitutional right to travel. It
facilitates our constitutional right to travel by making sure
we're safe on the road and that we know what we're doing.
Q All right, but you will concede, though, that the
Democrats have a potential political bonanza from this defeat of
the legislation this past week, going into the elections next
THE PRESIDENT: Well, if the public supports this. But
I didn't want a political bonanza, I wanted a safer America. And
our party did not seek political points on this. We sought -- if
we wanted a political bonanza, we would have gone in with a bunch
of issues that we knew were popular that we had no chance to
pass. We thought -- we went in there with an agenda that we
thought we could pass that we knew would make America a safer
No one questions -- no one seriously questions, after
the experience of the last five years with the Brady Bill, that
if we close the gun show and flea market loophole, that there
will be fewer improper sales and it will make America safer, at
minimum disruption to the people who buy and sell guns and use
them lawfully. So that's -- what we've tried to do is to get
things done that would make America a safer place.
Q All right. Speaking about politics, let's talk
about presidential politics. Do you think that Texas Governor
George W. Bush is qualified to be President of the United States?
THE PRESIDENT: Well, that's a decision the American
people have to make.
Q Well, what do you think?
THE PRESIDENT: Well, I think -- you know, for one
thing, we've got to see where he stands on the issues. So far,
we know almost nothing of that, except what we know from his
record as governor. He said -- his announcement speech was very
well crafted, and was strikingly reminiscent of what those of us
who call ourselves New Democrats have been saying since 1991.
But on the specifics, I just don't know. I mean, for
example, he said nothing about this gun battle going on in the
House. He signed the concealed weapons bill in the Texas
legislature. That's just the one example.
The one thing I thought the Vice President did
particularly well when he announced was to say, I'm very proud of
what we've done in the last six and a half years; I've got all
the relevant experience to be President, but the important thing
is, what are we going to do in the next four years; and here are
specific things I will do. I think that Governor Bush owes it to
the American people to say the same thing.
Q Well, why is Vice President Gore so far behind
Governor Bush in the polls, and what does the Vice President have
to do to catch up?
THE PRESIDENT: Well, I think in historical terms, he's
not particularly far behind. I think if you go back and look at
this point in 1959, when candidate Richard Nixon, Vice President
Richard Nixon, was going to run as the Republican nominee, he was
considerably further behind Adlai Stevenson, who was the
best-known Democrat at the time.
I think the American people -- the encouraging thing to
me is that two-thirds of them have said they want to know more
about all the candidates, including the Vice President. And I
believe when they look at experience, proven success, and the
program for the future -- most -- all elections are about
tomorrow -- I think he's going to do very well.
Q Do you think that he was trying, this week, to
distance himself from you, the Vice President, by saying, almost
volunteering, that your behavior last year was inexcusable?
THE PRESIDENT: Well, I took no offense at it. He
didn't say anything that I hadn't said in much starker terms a
long time ago. So there was nothing inappropriate about that.
I thought the most important thing he did, frankly, by
far, was to say, I've got experience in areas that matter, and we
have succeeded; here's what I'm going to do, specifically, if you
elect me; and the real choice is whether you want to build on
this record of success and go beyond it, or you want to go back.
I think -- keep in mind, the American people will view
this election, as they should -- as they should -- as about them,
their children, and their future. All elections are about
tomorrow. So if you've been a good Vice President, or a good
Governor of Texas -- for the voters at election time, that's only
valuable if it's evidence that you'll do good tomorrow.
They hire you; they give you a check every two weeks to
do a good job. So I thought the most important thing he did was
to talk about his future vision.
Q All right, let's talk about the First Lady's
potential run for the Senate from New York. When did you
discover, when did you learn that the First Lady was a New York
THE PRESIDENT: Oh, when I first -- shortly after I met
her, because I'm a big baseball fan. I mean, I'm --
Q You know, a lot of people think she just came up
THE PRESIDENT: I know that. But she said how it came
to be. Her primary allegiance all her life has been to the
Chicago Cubs. If you go to Chicago, basically, most of the
people on the North Side are for the Cubs, most of the people on
the South Side are for the White Sox. And she said, but I also
-- I remember back in the '70s, we were talking about other
baseball, and she said, but I like the Yankees, too. I said,
well, why don't you like the White Sox? She said, if you're from
Chicago, you're for the White Sox or the Cubs, and normally not
both. So our family always liked the Yankees.
Q All right. You know, there --
THE PRESIDENT: I learned it a long time ago.
Q -- you know, there are reports out today in U.S.
News and World Report that she's thinking of moving out of the
White House and getting a place in New York in the fall.
THE PRESIDENT: Well, it's not true that she's going to
move out of the White House. But let me answer the report.
Months ago, we said that we intended to get a place in New York.
We talked -- we started talking not long after we moved to the
White House about where we would live when we got out. She's
always wanted to live in New York, so we said we'd do that. And
I would divide my time between New York and going home to
Arkansas, and finishing my library and doing my work there.
Now, if she runs for the Senate, she'll obviously have
to spend a lot more time there. But it will be more like an
incumbent member of Congress running for reelection -- that is,
she's not going to stop being First Lady and doing her other
responsibilities, but she'll have to spend a lot more time in New
York, and we'll have to get a place there for her to be while
she's spending her time there.
Q If she runs for the Senate, will you be eligible
to vote for her in New York State? In other words, would you
move your voting registration from Arkansas to New York?
THE PRESIDENT: Well, I might, because I think every
vote counts, and I'd certainly want her to win if she ran.
Q Could be that close?
THE PRESIDENT: I will say this. I think, if this is
what she wants to do. If she wants, if she decides to do this, I
will be enthusiastically supportive, because I think she would be
truly magnificent. I think she'd be great for the people of New
York, and good for the people of America.
In all the years I've been in public life, of all the
people I've ever known, she has been the most consistently,
seriously dedicated to the kinds of public issues that I think
are important today -- to the welfare of children, the strength
of families, the future of education, quality of health care. I
mean, this is something -- if the people of New York chose her,
they would have somebody with 30 years of unbroken, consistent,
committed dedication, who knows a lot and is great with working
with people. So if that's what she wants, I'm strong for it.
Q And so you're ready to move from --
THE PRESIDENT: I'm ready to do whatever she wants. I
will be -- whatever the facts are about her running for the
Senate, I'll be dividing my time between New York and home,
because I've got a library to build, I've got a public policy
center to set up, and it's a real gift I want to give my native
state and I want it to be something wonderful and good. So
--I've spent quite a lot of time on it already.
Q Mr. President, you've always been someone who's
looked ahead. When you look ahead to your personal life after
you leave the White House, what do you see?
THE PRESIDENT: Well, it depends in part on what
Hillary does. You know, I'll probably be going to meetings of
the Senate spouses' club, if she decides to run. But I want to
continue to be active in areas that I care a great deal about.
And I think that through my library and through the public policy
center, and perhaps through some other activities, I can continue
to work on some of the issues of world peace, and reconciliation
of people across these racial and religious lines that I've
devoted so much of my life to. I can continue the work at home
on issues that I care a great deal about, including involving
young people in public service, whether it's young people in
AmeriCorps or young Americans who are interested in running for
public office. I've given a lot of thought to it.
But I'll find something useful to do. I want to work
hard. I'm too early -- it's too early to quit work, and I'm not
good enough to go on the senior golf tour. So I expect I'll have
to just keep on doing what I'm doing.
Q So what -- I'm hearing more of the Jimmy Carter
model as opposed to a Gerald Ford model.
THE PRESIDENT: Yes, that may just be a function of age
and circumstance. I think President Carter has been the most
effective former President in my lifetime, and one of the three
or four most important former Presidents, in his public service
and the quality of his work, in the entire history of the United
States. So what I would do wouldn't be exactly what he had done,
but I think the model of what he's done and how he's done it is a
good model for every former President who gets out who still has
good health and a few years left.
Q Okay, Mr. President. I'm told we're all out of
time. I want to thank you very much for joining us for this
special Late Edition here in Cologne.
THE PRESIDENT: This is your last trip with me, so I
want to thank you for six and a half good years. Good luck.
Q Thank you very much. It's been an honor to cover
END 4:45 P.M. (L)