Video: In the Hotseat
updated 2/13/2006 1:05:59 PM ET 2006-02-13T18:05:59

Former FEMA director Michael Brown testified before the Senate Friday, saying he warned top White House and Homeland Security officials the day Hurricane Katrina hit the Gulf Coast. 

His attorney, Andy Lester, joined Chris Matthews on 'Hardball’ to talk about the political storm which hit Capitol Hill after the testimony.

To read an excerpt from their conversation, continue to the text below. To watch the video, click on the "Launch" button to the right.

CHRIS MATTHEWS, HOST, 'HARDBALL’:  The whole problem of Katrina has been this perception that a lot of people, most of them African-Americans, were allowed to sit down there at that convention hall for days without getting water, food, any help at all.

And the other perception is that the president was so out of it, in terms of being attentive to this crisis, that he had to be given a DVD to update him on all the television coverage up until, like, Thursday of that week.  Is that Michael Brown's fault? 

ANDY LESTER, MICHAEL BROWN'S ATTORNEY:  Well Mr. Brown, my client and my longtime friend, was in touch with the White House on a regular basis, and he testified about that today.  He was regularly in contact with chief of staff, Andy Card, Joe Hagin, and also sometimes with the president himself. 

MATTHEWS:  So the president was giving—was given an adequate heads up that weekend before the levees broke on a Monday night? 

LESTER:  Certainly beforehand, there's no question about that.  And as Mr. Brown testified to today, he was talking with primarily Joe Hagin or Andy Card after landfall of the hurricane, so those updates were being given on a regular basis, and of course, obvious assumption would be that those were being passed on to the president.

MATTHEWS:  So even before the levees broke on that Monday night, that horrible Monday night, the president was aware that you were approaching what your client believed to be a real crisis, that they were going to break, there was going to be hell breaking loose down there in New Orleans? 

LESTER:  That's correct.  Michael Brown thought this would be the big one that they were concerned about. 

MATTHEWS:  Well why has he been spanked for this, kicked out of office, and humiliated? 

LESTER:  That's, I think, an awfully good question.  I believe he's been the poster boy for everything that went wrong.  This was a huge natural disaster.  It was a catastrophic disaster, putting those two words together, unlike any other that we've had in our history. 

It was overwhelming, no matter who was going to be dealing with it.  I think it's been a terrible misjustice to Mr. Brown, to make him into the poster boy of everything that went wrong.  Now he said that he made some mistakes, and certainly he did. 

MATTHEWS:  When he called the White House on the weekend before the levees broke in New Orleans, what did he ask for and did he get it? 

LESTER:  On a regular basis, when they would have these calls, the White House would ask him, do you have everything you need?  And generally, the answer would be yes, or here's what I need, and sometimes there would be logistical help, things like that.  He tried to get the military in.  I think he testified that that was something he wished that he had done earlier with 20/20 hindsight. 

MATTHEWS:  Why did it take the military from Sunday when he gave the president the heads up through Joe Hagin, the deputy chief of staff, all the way to late in that week to get any help—water, food, et cetera—to those people who were standing there in the heat with babies that were dehydrating? 

LESTER:  Well, again, I think we need to look at there are two different issues.  There is certainly the Superdome.  That was the planned-for shelter of last resort.  Then later in the week, we found out about the Convention Center.  And that was something that was not planned for.  It wasn't part of anybody's plans that that would be a shelter of last resort.  So that took awhile to get there.

MATTHEWS:  Wasn't anyone watching television? 

LESTER:  Well, I'm sure some—a lot of people were watching television, but I know down in Louisiana, they were on the ground working. 

MATTHEWS:  Was your client attuned to what was being presented to the average American during the course of this crisis? 

LESTER:  Yes, he was and I think he even talked about that today and I know he talked about it when he testified in front of the House.  He misspoke when he said on Thursday that we've just learned about it today.  Now I'll say this.  He's been up 24, 48 hours, and perhaps it seemed like today, but he had found out about that on Wednesday. 

MATTHEWS:  The president mustered him out, dumped him, right, or was it the vice president?  Who fired your client, Michael Brown? 

LESTER:  Well, presumably it's the president. 

MATTHEWS:  Why do you think the Vice President was sent down to inspect his operation, then the very next day he gets bounced?  What's the connection? 

LESTER:  Honestly, I don't know.  I don't know.  What I do know is the word came from Secretary Chertoff to him that he was to go back to Washington. 

MATTHEWS:  The president's first review of Michael Brown, your client's work, was “you're doing a hell of a job, Brownie.”  Why did he say that if he didn't mean it? 

LESTER:  I assume he did mean it.  I assume he did and, frankly, I think he was doing a heck of a job. 

MATTHEWS:  And then what happened to change the president's assessment? 

LESTER:  I would tell you there was this whole series of stories in the media, first it was about my client's resume.  I can tell you from having known him for almost a quarter of a century that virtually all those stories were false. 

MATTHEWS:  Well, wasn't he in fact an official with the Arabian Horseracing Association? 

LESTER:  He had been, yes.  That's correct. 

MATTHEWS:  Well, wasn't that his primary occupation before he got this job? 

LESTER:  That was his previous occupation. 

MATTHEWS:  Was that an appropriate preparation for the job of being federal emergency management administrator? 

LESTER:  Let’s recall how he got to be the head of the agency.  He started off as the general counsel.  He's been a lawyer since 1981 and 1982.  His job at the Arabian Horse Association, while it was not technically a real job, what he really was was a prosecutor, an investigator and prosecutor.  He's been doing legal practice for a long time.  He's been involved in government for a long time and he was involved in emergency management. 

MATTHEWS:  We're in the interesting area right now, law.  You're a lawyer, you're an attorney, you're his attorney, he's an attorney, right? 

LESTER:  That's correct. 

MATTHEWS:  What's your combined judgment about the legality of the White House holding back e-mail traffic between he and the president's office? 

LESTER:  Well, I wanted to get clarification.  I think that the White House certainly has the right to claim executive privilege.  I sent a letter to the White House on Monday, requesting clarification. 

I did not want my client to be caught between these two co-equal branches of government.  He was between a rock and a hard place.  The president does have a right to claim executive privilege. 

MATTHEWS:  What's your position? 

LESTER:  The Supreme Court said that that's his prerogative.

MATTHEWS:  You want these e-mails out to the public?  Will they improve the image of your client or not? 

LESTER:  Obviously, I think they will, but that's not his concern. 

MATTHEWS:  Are they in the interest of your client to get these e-mails out? 

LESTER:  I think it's in the interest of the public and that does include my client, to have all the information out.

MATTHEWS:  OK.  Who's saying no? 

LESTER:  Well, at this point nobody is saying no. 

MATTHEWS:  Harriet Miers? 

LESTER:  At this point nobody is.

MATTHEWS:  What is your best professional estimate?  Are we going to see this communication between Michael Brown during these crisis hours with the White House or not? 

LESTER:  At this point, I would say yes.  He testified at length today about several of these conversations that previously he had.

MATTHEWS:  Here's what I don't get, and this is political.  It's not just legal.  Your client testified today that he talked to Joe Hagin, the deputy chief of staff, early on before the dikes or the levees broke, right? 

LESTER:  He was talking with those folks for days before.

MATTHEWS:  OK.  And yet the president, his chief of staff, felt he needed to present the president with a professionally produced DVD of all the television news coverage of what had been happening when the president wasn't watching.  If the president is either on top of this thing or he's not.  Was it your sense he was on top of it and if so, why did he need a TV update? 

LESTER:  I can't speak to why he need a TV update or whether that was an aide.  Is it my perception?  Yes.  My perception is that he was on top of it, that's my understanding, that is my perception. 

MATTHEWS:  So he did a heck of a job? 

LESTER:  I think that he was well on top of it.  Yes, sir. 

MATTHEWS:  OK, so the president did a heck of a job.  Michael Brown did a heck of a job.  How about Michael Chertoff then at Homeland Security? 

LESTER:  I'm not sure I could speak to that one. 

MATTHEWS:  In other words, he didn't do a heck of a job? 

LESTER:  No, I'm just not sure that I'm the right person to speak to that. 

MATTHEWS:  OK, great.

LESTER:  I've never met Secretary Chertoff.  I would have a hard time doing that.

Watch 'Hardball' each night at 5 and 7 p.m. ET on MSNBC. 

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