Remarks on the Veto of the National Defense Authorization Act, Fiscal Year 1989, and a Question-and-Answer Session With Reporters

 

August 3, 1988

 

The President. I have just now vetoed the defense authorization bill in the Oval Office. I think my reasons for this action can be plainly stated, if not seen. The bill would signal a basic change in the direction of our national defense, a change away from strength and proven success and back toward weakness and accommodation of the 1970's.

 

This decade opened with a weakened national defense, totalitarian expansionism, and growing regional conflicts. All of these trends, as we move toward the close of the eighties, are being reversed. I just returned from Moscow after signing the first nuclear arms treaty in history that reduces nuclear missiles. There's a Soviet pullout underway in Afghanistan. We see progress in settling regional conflicts such as Cambodia and Angola and even in the Iran-Iraq war. Because of our military presence and strong stand in the Persian Gulf, there is hope of a settlement. We're also cautiously hopeful about democratic reform within the Eastern bloc itself. American prestige and power have been restored. We've dampened aggression and promoted peace. And we've come to an even greater realization of how much our renewed military strength has meant to all of us. But over time, the defense bill that I've just vetoed would have placed in jeopardy all of these diplomatic and strategic advances. It would endanger progress in arms negotiations by giving away our negotiating leverage without getting a single thing in return from the Soviets. And this I shall not do.

 

Second, the bill would gravely endanger the SDI program. No development has been more crucial to the progress in arms reduction negotiations than our decision 5 years ago to proceed with a Strategic Defense Initiative. The importance placed on this system by the Soviets is evidenced not only by the 20-year-long development of their own SDI but by their actions at the 1986 summit. The American people understand the simple truth, the elementary logic, of having in place a defensive system that can protect this nation from nuclear missile attack and may someday free the world of the nightmare of nuclear terror. And the American people have repeatedly expressed their agreement with this position. However, the way this bill restricts our proposed space-based interceptors would cripple the very concept of a space shield against nuclear attack. And I will not abide this, particularly in view of the technical progress that SDI is making. They say this bill would take the ``stars'' out of Star Wars. With my veto today, I'm putting back the ``I'' -- initiative -- in SDI.

 

So, the nearly 20-percent cut in SDI funding, combined with the congressional restriction on the space-based component of the program, amounts to this: gutting SDI. As I say, I will not abide it. I do not believe the American people will either.

 

And again, I want to emphasize that this bill would mean unilateral concessions to the Soviets -- concessions that would reduce my bargaining leverage at the conference table at the very moment when that leverage has produced its most fruitful results. It cuts by 25 percent our strategic modernization funding request at the very moment when we're negotiating a strategic arms reduction treaty. It represents congressional micromanagement not only of key strategic defense programs but of delicate arms negotiations. It would set a dangerous precedent of tying Presidential hands in arms negotiations.

 

I have been patient as the liberals in Congress attempted to erode our military strength, the strength that has provided the basis for our diplomatic success, but I can be patient no longer. Congress needs to get back to work and come up with a bill I can sign. These are issues of national security, and they must remain above partisan politics.

 

Yes?

 

Defense Authorization Bill

 

Q. Mr. President, what about the fact that the Democrats have in this bill more money than you, in fact, asked for? So, how do you respond to those who say that this is a political gambit on your part, that this is partisan politics for George Bush against Mike Dukakis, and that you're vetoing a bill that would actually spend more on defense than you had even asked Congress for?

 

The President. Well, the partisan politics is on the other side. And the fact that the total of the bill is within the budget requirements -- due to the fact that inside they have taken upon themselves to change where the spending is going to take place and remove it from some things and add it to others.

 

Q. What's partisan about that? That's what Congress and the Executive do all the time --  --

 

The President. I don't think --  --

 

Q.  --  -- make choices.

 

The President. I think there has to come a time when you depend on the experts and the people in the military -- experts and all -- and your own knowledge of what and where the money is most needed in the military, and not on what they've been doing -- for example, not because we know that there is a partisan position in which there are a great many there who just don't want SDI at all. Well, I think they're bucking the tide because we've proven that SDI can be practical and can be a method of protecting us against a nuclear attack, and I think the overwhelming majority of the American people want that kind of protection.

 

Q. Mr. President, given the lateness in both the congressional season and the political season, do you not now risk getting no bill at all or a continuing resolution that would give you even less of what you seek in terms of defense? In other words, how much of this is going to result in an actual change as far as the budget is concerned, and how much sets the stage for a political debate later in the campaign?

 

The President. Well, I think we have to recognize that the Senate had a good bill on this, and one that would have been appropriate; and in conference they gave it too many things. And I just think that they have to recognize that we've got to come together and recognize each other's views on what is necessary and what is essential.

 

Q. Well, do you expect another bill before Congress goes out?

 

The President. Well, the appropriations bill as it stands is one that I could sign and would sign.

 

Iranian Jetliner Incident

 

Q. Mr. President, are you ready to retract statements that you made when we downed the Iranian airliner? It seems that the report will show, apparently, according to reports today, that the crew panicked and that actually, you know, this sort of thing could probably happen again.

 

The President. Well, Helen [Helen Thomas, United Press International], I've read and seen and heard what is being said about the report and assigning the blame to the people in the radar room who were interpreting the radar signals and all, but I can't comment because actually neither the military nor my office have received the report as yet. And as soon as we receive it and can go over it and study it ourselves, then we'll be able to comment, but --  -- 

 

Q. You have no preliminary indications of --  -- 

 

The President. No, and I don't think that we could consider the report final until it has been submitted now. And how it has escaped before this took place -- I have to feel the process has not been concluded.

 

Secretary of the Treasury

 

Q. Mr. President, who are you going to choose to replace Jim Baker as Secretary of the Treasury?

 

The President. Hmmm. [Laughter]

 

Q. The name is Brady, B-r-a-d-y.

 

The President. You know something, you've caught me here. I can't remember just exactly some of the things -- all that we're considering and whether we were ready to make an announcement on that situation.

 

Q. Well, go ahead. [Laughter]

 

Q. Yes, you were.

 

Q. Feel free.

 

The President. One announcement a day is enough.

 

Defense Authorization Bill

 

Q. Mr. President, you have said that this bill is a product of partisan politics, and you've accused liberals of playing politics with it, yet your own Secretary of Defense, Mr. Carlucci, urged you to sign the bill. Senator Warner from Virginia, the leading Republican on Armed Services, urged you to sign the bill. How can you say it's a product of partisan politics and liberal politics if your own advisers told you to sign the bill?

 

The President. Well, I think that the Secretary will abide by the decision that I have made. He had some questions, and he had some concerns of what might result from vetoing. And I have to say that the preponderance, however, of belief -- and that from our own people in the legislature -- was that the faults and flaws outweighed any of the concerns that were expressed by a few others.

 

Q. But does this mean that Mr. Carlucci is soft on defense and for a weak defense --  -- 

 

The President. Oh, no.

 

Q.  --  -- as you've accused the sponsors of the bill of being?

 

The President. No, not at all. He's been doing a fine job, and as I say, I think you'll find that he is supportive of the action we've taken.

 

Q. What has --  --

 

Q. Mr. President --  --

 

Mr. Fitzwater. Frank [Frank Sesno, Cable News Network], go ahead.

 

Q. Thank you. Mr. President --  --

 

Q. Marlin, he called on me.

 

The President. I had just -- all right.

 

Mr. Fitzwater. All right. Go ahead.

 

Vice President's Role

 

Q. Mr. President, what has been Vice President Bush's role in the two decisions -- yesterday's decision not to veto the plant closings bill and today's decision to veto this defense authorization measure?

 

The President. I think you'd find that we were in complete agreement in both these instances.

 

Q. Did he advise you to take both of these courses?

 

The President. Well, I know whether he agrees or disagrees on things, and he has been very careful of whether he seems to be overstepping or not in his present position. But he's been a part not only of these but he's been a part of every other major undertaking of our administration.

 

Q. And you can't tell us what his advice was.

 

Q. Mr. President, on the subject of Vice President Bush, if I may --  --

 

Mr. Fitzwater. Let's take one final question, Frank.

 

The President. All right, is that the one we're taking?

 

Mr. Fitzwater. That's the one.

 

The President. All right -- you see how well we get along. [Laughter]

 

Support for George Bush's Candidacy

 

Q. On the subject of Vice President Bush, both your plant-closing decision yesterday and today's DOD authorization veto hinged not only on advice and counsel from the Vice President but also on what you and your advisers felt would help him politically. But I'm interested in what your explanation is for his great deficit in the polls. You have gone out of your way to say that he's been an active Vice President, but apparently the American people don't buy that -- or if they do, they don't like what they see.

 

The President. Well, you all are aware of the power of the media, the power of the press. Maybe it has to do -- something with the fact that for quite some considerable time now, ever since the decision was recognized as final on the Democratic side, their candidate has been getting several times as much space and time in the press and the media than the Vice President has. Now, maybe when our convention takes place and there's going to be some coverage of that, maybe we'll see a change coming. I would think that a change would begin to come when the campaign really gets underway and we reveal how many falsehoods have been spread among the people by the opposition.

 

Q. Mr. President, the back of the room, please. Mr. President, in the back of the room -- give us a chance.

 

Michael S. Dukakis

 

Q. Do you feel that Michael Dukakis should make his medical records public? He has refused to make his medical records public -- the first official for high office since Eagleton in 1972. He's had his campaign representatives call up -- unsolicited phone calls to newspapers saying he never had psychiatric care. He walked away from a question about that last Friday. Do you think the American people deserve to know whether he's fit to govern by having his medical records made public?

 

The President. Look, I'm not going to pick on an invalid.

 

Q. Ohhhh!

 

Q. An invalid in what sense?

 

Q. Mr. President, how do you happen to feel that you know more about --  --

 

The President. Look, he has told you that that is the last question.

 

Q. Invalid in what sense, sir?

 

Defense Authorization Bill

 

Q. Mr. President, how do you happen to -- that you feel that you know more about what public opinion wants in the way of defense than the Congress, which spent 6 months making compromises and taking testimony from military and other experts? Why do you think you know more? Don't you think the public opinion in this country may have changed from wanting all-out money for the Defense Department to making some of that money be more balanced and go for other programs?

 

The President. I can't take any further questions. And you're absolutely right -- I just stay down in front --  --

 

Q. You can't take any further questions? Well, why can't you? That's a good question, sir.

 

The President. Maybe I'll start taking some further back.

 

Q. Mr. President, why shouldn't we unfreeze those assets if it could mean getting the hostages back?

 

Q. If you take this woman's question and you're not taking mine, why?

 

Iran-U.S. Relations

 

Q. Why are we standing so tough on Iran?

 

The President. Because we're trying to bring peace in the Middle East.

 

Note: The President spoke to reporters at 10:20 a.m. in the Briefing Room at the White House. Marlin Fitzwater was Assistant to the President for Press Relations.