The Bush-China monologues

The White House takes questions: A drama in multiple acts.

By Jake Tapper
Published April 3, 2001 3:09AM (EDT)

The Characters:

Scott McClellan, the kid-brother-like White House deputy press secretary

Mary Ellen Countryman, spokesperson for the National Security Council

Reporters, ravenous

The Setting

It's 1:35 p.m. EST in the in the James S. Brady briefing room in the White House's west wing, and the boyish White House deputy press secretary (played by the understudy, McClellan) comes before the press corps to discuss President George W. Bush's meeting with Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak.

But that feisty press corps instead wants to talk about something else: the fact that American diplomats had been refused permission to visit the 24 American crew members of the U.S. Navy spy plane who have been detained by Chinese officials for more than 32 hours -- not to mention reports that Chinese officials have boarded the plane.

They want answers. But are they going to get them from McClellan? Does he have them, but prefer a droll game of cat-and-mouse instead? Such questions come alive in the uniquely enjoyable thrust-and-parry of the Bush White House.

Act 1 "No it wasn't, Scott" (McClellan leads a discussion as to whether the U.S. plane was boarded.)

McClellan: Good afternoon. I only have one announcement today. At 3:15 p.m., here in the press briefing room, a senior administration official will give a readout on the meeting between President Bush and President Mubarak. It will be a background briefing.

And with that, I am happy to take questions.

Reporter: Scott, does the president have a reaction to the fact that the Chinese have apparently boarded the spy plane?

McClellan: I don't have any information on that.

Reporter: Well, U.S. officials say it happened, so does the president not know that that's the case or --

McClellan: I'm not aware of that.

Reporter: Scott, the president said further, when he talked about the matter, he referred to further tampering, which indicated that he knew something had happened.

Countryman (jumping in): No, he said, "further damage."

Reporter: Pardon?

Countryman: He said, "further damage."

Reporter: No. No.

Reporter: No, he said, "further tampering." Scott, has the plane been tampered with? Or, to what extent has the plane been tampered with?

McClellan: Well, I think the president's statement was very clear.

Reporter: No, it wasn't, Scott. He didn't even address this.

McClellan: Again, I have no information on whether or not the plane has been boarded by Chinese officials ...

Reporter: I'm sorry, do you not have information about whether the plane was boarded, or does the United States not have information about whether the plane was boarded?

McClellan: I do not have that information.

Reporter: You're not saying it doesn't exist, you just don't have it?

McClellan: I have no information to that effect. So I think I've addressed it. I think I've addressed it, though.

Reporter: But you're not disputing it?

McClellan: Well, I don't know where your reports are coming from. I'd refer you to State Department or the Pentagon on that.

Reporter: Well, can't we get some reaction from the president on this?

McClellan: Well, again, I think what he said earlier was that it's very troubling by the lack of speed in allowing us the diplomatic access to the crew.

Reporter: That's not the issue, Scott.

McClellan: I understand that, but I think I addressed it --

Reporter (interrupting): No, you haven't.

McClellan: -- that I have no information about what you're referring to.

Act 2 "You said that the president was fully engaged." (An exploration of the larger foreign policy implications)

Reporter: Did the plane fly on a special mission? It was reportedly on a routine flight.

McClellan: This is a routine mission over international airspace, as we indicated earlier.

Reporter: Scott, in any of the conversations that the administration has had with Chinese officials, have they indicated that the Chinese response to this -- I don't want to call it a foreign policy crisis, but foreign policy challenge -- may impact the U.S. decision to sell four Arleigh Burke class destroyers to Taiwan?

McClellan: I think right now the focus is on getting access to the crew. And that's the focus, and that's the issue we're focused on right now, immediate access to the crew.

Reporter: Right. But in those conversations, has anybody from the administration said to the Chinese, how you respond to this, how quickly you give us access to the crew, how quickly you let the crew go may have some impact on our decision to sell these arms to Taiwan?

McClellan: I'll see if I can find out more for you ...

Reporter: Scott, does the United States have an obligation toward the Chinese, who was downed, reparations or apology or anything of that sort?

McClellan: Well, I think the president addressed that in his statement. He said that -- at the end of his statement this morning, he said we have offered to provide search and rescue assistance to help the Chinese government locate the missing aircraft, and the pilot, as well.

Reporter: Is there an obligation on the part of the United States?

McClellan: Well, we've offered our assistance, so --

Reporter: Did they ever accept the offer?

Countryman (jumping in): No, they have not.

McClellan: No, they have not.

Reporter: Scott, this morning you said the president was fully engaged. He met with his secretary of state. He's met with his Defense ... And yet you, speaking for him, cannot tell us whether he has any knowledge or you have knowledge of whether the plane has been boarded. They report to the president. He's been meeting with them all day. Unless he's fully engaged or not, don't you know whether the plane has been boarded?

McClellan: Well, again, I'd refer you to the State Department. I've addressed the question, and if I have more information for you I'll give it to you later.

Reporter: The State Department doesn't have any information. I just came back from the briefing, and they don't have information on this either.

McClellan: I'm sorry, on the what?

Reporter: Richard Boucher just answered several questions on this very issue, and he didn't have much information.

McClellan: Well, if we have more information to provide, we will, and I'll be glad to check on it.

Act 3 "That's their time, Chinese." (Further inquiries into the status of the American crewmembers)

Reporter: Has the Chinese government indicated that consular officials would be given access to the detained crewmembers by a certain time -- like, by tomorrow? Is that accurate? Is that good enough?

McClellan: Actually -- well, it's still troubling by the lack of speed of their response. They have indicated, Chinese officials told Ambassador Preuher that, late morning D.C. time, that consular officials may have access late Tuesday night.

Reporter: "May" or "will"?

McClellan: That they may have access late Tuesday night.

Reporter: Have they said why they haven't given us access up to this point? Have they given us a reason why?

McClellan: I'd refer you to -- I mean, State Department just had a briefing.

Reporter: Tuesday night there, or here?

McClellan: That's their time, Chinese.

Reporter: Is that in response to the president's appeal just a little while ago?

McClellan: I'm sorry?

Reporter: Is that in response to what the president -- his statement a few minutes ago, this commitment to have access Tuesday night?

McClellan: Well, again, we find it very troubling about the lack of speed in responding, and we continue to press for prompt access -- that is, as early as possible -- without any further delay.

Reporter: Scott, we're trying to get the sequence of events. Did the notification that consular officials could see them by late Tuesday night their time, did that notification come after the president's statement here, do you know? We're just trying to establish a sequence of events.

Countryman (jumping in): It was around the same time frame.

McClellan: I'll try and get you a readout on that afterwards.

Reporter: So they're saying we may not -- if we see them at all, it won't be for another 20 hours?

McClellan: That's the indication from the Chinese government.

Reporter: What have we said back to them?

McClellan: Well, we continue to express what the president said earlier today, that we would like immediate access to the crew ... our first priority is the crew, and the aircraft, as well.

Reporter: Is there a time frame in this quickness? Is the immediacy a time frame?

McClellan: We're discussing that right now with Chinese officials, and saying that we would like that access as quickly as possible.

Reporter: Or what?

Reporter: Scott, you just said, though, that [getting] to the people is most important, but also the plane. If that's true, then what about this report that the plane has already been boarded?

McClellan: Well, again, I've already addressed that question ...

Act 4 "What's the other shoe?" (Probing and inquiries as to whether we're about to go to war)

Reporter: Do the Chinese consider this is a spying mission from the United States to their land, and that's why they act this way?

McClellan: This was a routine surveillance mission by U.S. Navy aircraft.

Reporter: Let me follow up and let me reverse the situation for a moment. How would President Bush feel if the Chinese -- if Chinese spy aircraft would be routinely flying just off the shore of San Francisco?

McClellan: Well, you're getting into a hypothetical situation ... I'm not going to get into a hypothetical situation right now.

Reporter: Scott, immediate access to the crew or what?

McClellan: I'm sorry?

Reporter: I said, you're demanding immediate access to the crew.

McClellan: To the crew, and to the aircraft.

Reporter: Or what? What's the other shoe?

McClellan: I'm sorry?

Reporter: What's the other shoe?

McClellan: Well, that's what we're continuing to discuss with Chinese officials.

Reporter: When do you stop discussing and start acting?

McClellan: Well, again, when we have more information for you, I'll get that to you ...

Act 5 "Does the White House know where (the members of the crew) are?" (A simple question. Or is it?)

Reporter: At the State Department, Richard Boucher was asked whether we knew where the crew was, physically -- whether it was in the plane, on the base, wherever it was. He said he didn't know.

Does the White House know where the crew is, physically?

McClellan: If I have more information, I'll get that to you. But State Department would be --

Reporter: There are reports that they're in some kind of guesthouse, what they call a guesthouse.

McClellan: Well, what the Chinese government had indicated to us is that they are providing humanitarian assistance to the crew. But that's the information I have at this time.

Reporter: He didn't ask you where -- the question back here wasn't where they are, he was just asking, "Does the White House know where they are?" I think it's a yes or a no.

McClellan: Well, the Chinese government has indicated that they're safe and that they're providing humanitarian assistance to them. So I think you can assume from that --

Reporter (interrupting): -- that we know where they are right now? Because --

McClellan: That the Chinese government is, like I said, providing humanitarian assistance.

Reporter: Does the White House know where they are right now, physically?

Reporter: Meaning they've been taken off the plane?

Reporter: So we don't know?

McClellan: I'm sorry?

Reporter: Meaning they've been taken off the plane?

McClellan: I'll get back to you on that.

Act 6 "Do you have something to bring to my attention?" (A contemplation of the media-age Cold War)

Reporter: Scott, last week, the president said that the U.S. is not a threat to China. How about if China is a threat to the U.S.? No. 1. And No. 2, if the Chinese are spying on the U.S.?

McClellan: Do you have something to bring to my attention? ...

Act 7 "If China what?" (Further ruminations on China and the balance of power)

Reporter: The president said that the U.S. is not a threat to China; how about if China is a threat to U.S. security?

McClellan: If China what?

Reporter: If China is a threat to the United States?

Reporter: Is China a threat to the United States?

Reporter: It's about the same question, that if they are flying off the shore of San Francisco, do they do that?

McClellan: I'd refer you to the Defense Department on that question. I'm not aware of any --

Reporter: What's the explanation for the different interpretation of international law?

McClellan: Let me come back ...

Reporter: Couldn't these missions be conducted by -- or satellite? Do we have to have people on the plane to conduct these dangerous missions?

McClellan: I think that's a question for the Pentagon ...

Reporter: The president said our Embassy officials are on the ground. Does that mean they're actually on the island?

Countryman (jumping in): They're on Hainan Island.

McClellan: OK, they are there.

Reporter: Scott, let me put my question in a different way. The president said last week that the U.S. is not a threat to China. He meant a security threat or military threat. How about if China is a threat to the United States, as far as military threat is concerned?

McClellan: I'm sorry?

Reporter: Scott, you have said several times that this was a "routine mission." I presume you are aware of just how routine, and could you give us some information about how often these flights are undertaken, and how close they come to the shore?

McClellan: We don't provide that information from here, but --

Reporter: Then how do you know they're "routine"?

McClellan: The Pentagon, if you want to refer that question to them.

Reporter: Now, wait a minute. If you're going to stand at the podium and tell the American people these are routine missions, I believe we expect you to know something about how routine they are.

McClellan: And that's why I would refer you to the Pentagon, so they can talk in more detail about what that entails. I think the Pentagon is the appropriate place to refer that. We had a question back here in the back ...

Reporter: Have the Chinese given us any indication of why we cannot have access to the crew? I asked the same question at the State Department, and they directed me to China.

McClellan: No, I don't, I don't have any information.


Lights down.

Jake Tapper

Jake Tapper is the senior White House correspondent for ABC News.

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