MR. TIM RUSSERT: Our issues this Sunday: nearly six months after Hurricane Katrina, the head of Homeland Security is under intense fire in the U.S. Senate.
(Videotape, February 15, 2006)
SEN. SUSAN COLLINS (R, ME): The response of DHS must be judged a failure.
SEN. JOE LIEBERMAN (D, CT): You had the capability. It wasn’t used well.
MR. RUSSERT: And also in the House, where a Republican investigation concludes there was a failure of initiative and a failure of leadership at every level of government. Can he restore confidence in his leadership? With us, the Secretary of Homeland Security, Michael Chertoff.
Then, four days after he accidentally shoots his hunting partner, Vice President Cheney breaks his silence.
(Videotape, February 15, 2006)
VICE PRES. DICK CHENEY: I’m the guy who pulled the trigger that fired the round that hit Harry. It was, I’d have to say, one of the worst days of my life.
MR. RUSSERT: Did the vice president handle this situation properly? And was the media coverage appropriate? With us: New York Times columnist Maureen Dowd, Wall Street Journal editorial page editor Paul Gigot, NBC News chief White House correspondent David Gregory, and the former counselor to Mr. Cheney, Mary Matalin. Dowd, Gigot, Gregory and Matalin square off.
But first, August 29, 2005, Hurricane Katrina devastates the Gulf region. Hundreds of thousands are homeless, more than a thousand die. The secretary of Homeland Security was in charge of the federal response to that disaster, and he joins us this morning for the first time since that hurricane week.
Welcome, Secretary Michael Chertoff.
SEC’Y MICHAEL CHERTOFF: Good to be here, Tim.
MR. RUSSERT: What a week for you, hearings before the Senate and reports from House Republicans. The New Orleans Times-Picayune, the local paper down there, editorialized this: “Katrina was a disaster that had long been feared. The House report, then, is on target when it says that September 11 was a failure of imagination, but Katrina was a failure of initiative and leadership. Those who are responsible should be held accountable. Firing FEMA’s Michael Brown was a start. But FEMA was under the Department of Homeland Security—Michael Chertoff’s department. The House report concludes that he fulfilled his responsibilities ‘late, ineffectively, or not at all.’ If that’s not grounds for dismissal, what is?” Have you ever considered stepping down?
SEC’Y CHERTOFF: Well, you know, like everybody else who is serving in the Cabinet, I serve at the pleasure of the president. And when I took the job, I knew that we had a lot of work to do to mature the department, and I was aware of the fact that something might happen, whether it was a manmade or a terrorist event, before we had a chance to finish the building. So I can’t say I had my eyes closed about the challenge in the job. I continue to serve at the pleasure of the president. I think my responsibility is to try to fix the department. And as long as the president wants me to do that, I’m going to continue to stay on the job.
MR. RUSSERT: You haven’t had any conversations with his staff about moving on?
SEC’Y CHERTOFF: Well, you know, I don’t normally talk about conversations with the president or the senior staff. But the president knows that I am there as long as he wants and needs me, and I will work 24/7 to make this department as good as it can be.
MR. RUSSERT: Senate Joe Lieberman of Connecticut at the hearing said this: “Our conclusion is that the Department of Homeland Security had a responsibility to lead the preparation and response to Hurricane Katrina, and let us down. We’ve invested billions of dollars in the department. It had the capabilities to prepare for and respond to Katrina, and it didn’t use them. As a result, a lot of people suffered and, unfortunately, a lot of people died.” Does that haunt you?
SEC’Y CHERTOFF: It does haunt me because what—it’s not the criticism. Because, obviously, some of the criticism is obviously helpful. Some of it I don’t agree with. But what does stick with me is the image of people who unnecessarily suffered because of delays in getting them evacuated. There was some tremendous success stories. I actually was very worried the first couple of days about rescues. I was worried, how were you going to get thousands and tens of thousands of people who are trapped in attics out of those attics? And there the Coast Guard and other parts of the department performed magnificently. But in the evacuation, I think we really fell short. And that’s certainly something which I will always carry with me and something which I’m determined to fix, particularly as we come into hurricane season this year, which is just a hundred days away.
MR. RUSSERT: When you were last on, a few days after the hurricane began, you said that the levees were breached early Tuesday morning. We now learn that in fact it was around Monday morning at 8:30 that people were first notified the levees had breached. Why were you out of the loop?
SEC’Y CHERTOFF: Well, actually, I think what I said is that they’d been breached over night, Monday night. And we now know the levees began to be breached Monday morning. I think that the principle levee breach, 17th Street, we still haven’t pinpointed the exact time of the breach.
This was really the biggest failure, I think, of the department in Katrina was the inability to get ground troops from New Orleans. The fact that we didn’t have assets on the ground, trained people, proper equipment, to immediately send back messages about what was going on. And that’s one thing we have already begun to fix. We’ve trained and recruited law enforcement personnel. We are acquiring the kinds of very sophisticated satellite gear that let us beam things directly back to headquarters. We’ve got better aerial assets, and we’re integrating better with the military in terms of things like satellite capability and overflying P3s and other kinds of aircraft.
MR. RUSSERT: But FEMA knew on Monday morning that a levee had been breached. I was somewhat taken back by this testimony from Michael Brown before the Senate. “Question: You’re telling us that a conversation directly with Secretary Chertoff would not have produced any kind of worthwhile results? Brown: No, it would have wasted my time.”
SEC’Y CHERTOFF: I think that was a big mistake on Mike Brown’s part. I mean, we had the ability to bring in all kinds of assets at the department. On the Sunday before the hurricane struck, I sat on a video conference and heard everybody go through the very extensive list of supplies that had been pre- positioned. And at the end, I asked two questions, I said, “Is there anything you need from us, Coast Guard, law enforcement, anything that you don’t have?” And I was told, “We’ve got everything we need.” And I asked about the Department of Defense, I said, “Is there something we need to do to help you there?” And was told that the Department of Defense was sitting at the table, and they were engaged.
I think that had we gotten earlier notice, we could have done more to help. But I also think, Tim, we have to acknowledge that this hurricane was simply overwhelming, and you will never have a catastrophe of this magnitude that will not have its problems and not have its suffering and not have its pain. So we aspire to do a lot better, but we also have to be realistic about the nature of the challenge.
MR. RUSSERT: But the Thursday of the hurricane, four, five days into it, you began to have your doubts about FEMA and its leadership, and this is what you said before the Congress.
(Videotape, February 15, 2006)
SEC’Y CHERTOFF: Thursday night, I began to—I asked myself, “Are we dealing with a situation where it’s not just the inherent, overwhelming challenge, but that maybe, despite good intentions, Mr. Brown is really not up to this.”
MR. RUSSERT: “Mike Brown not up to this.” The very next day, the president came down to the Gulf region, and here you are on the screen—right of the screen in the purple shirt, Mr. Brown in the middle, the president on the left. And this is where the president uttered these now-infamous words. Let’s listen.
(Videotape, September 2, 2005)
PRES. GEORGE W. BUSH: Brownie, you’re doing a heck of a job.
MR. RUSSERT: The president is saying he’s doing a heck of a job; the night before, you’re saying, “I don’t think the guy’s up to it.” Why didn’t you tell the president?
SEC’Y CHERTOFF: Well, again, I never get into conversations with the president. But I do think the context of that remark is that Brown had been up for, you know, practically every night for the last few days. I think whatever my judgment was about whether his skills were matched to the challenge, I think certainly everybody believed at that point he was doing his best. And I think this is really an effort to kind of buck the troops up, recognize the fact that everybody was really exhausted and working hard. And the fact is, we were in the middle—still very much in the middle of the event, and we needed to keep people’s spirits up, so I think you’ve got to look at this as—in the context of a recognition that everybody was really exhausted and overwhelmed by the nature of the challenge.
MR. RUSSERT: Was it an attempt to spin the American people? Things on the ground were in such stark reality to what the official pronouncements coming out of the government were?
SEC’Y CHERTOFF: No, I think—I think, you know, when you are in a disaster, you actually look people in the eyes, and you see how they’re working their hearts out. And even if it—if they haven’t done the kind of job that you wish they could have done. As a human matter, I think you want to reach out, you want to, you know, pat them on the back, you want to buck them up. I don’t think that’s the time to start to engage in finger pointing or in—in, you know, giving brutal assessments about people’s performance.
MR. RUSSERT: Taxpayers are obviously very concerned about where their money’s going. There’ve been a series of reports this week about some of the federal money that was spent on Katrina. The Government Accountability Office said this: “The government squandered millions of dollars in Katrina disaster aid, including handing $2,000 debit cards to people who gave phoney Social Security numbers. Recipients improperly used their debit cards instead—intended for food and shelter for $400 massages, a $450 tattoo, $1100 diamond engagement ring and $150 worth of products at Condoms to Go.”
How does that happen?
SEC’Y CHERTOFF: Well, let me break this into two parts. Let me first say that there’s actually good news in that we have fixed the problem of people being able to call up with phony Social Security card numbers because we’ve now used—we’ve engaged a kind of contractor that we used to screen online applications, and we’re now using that for telephone applications. So that’s one problem we have corrected. The second problem of people misusing funds is kind of a common issue when you deal with disasters. People are entitled by law to receive a certain amount of compensation, money for food, and—and clothing and shelter. Inevitably, some people are going do misuse that. And unless we move to a voucher system, which would be a very cumbersome system, we have to try to balance the urgency of getting people some money so they’re not literally left starving and without clothing against the fact that there will always be some scoundrels who will misuse the money or try to defraud us. And those people we obviously need to prosecute and punish.
MR. RUSSERT: There are some misjudgments that were made, however, that were not scoundrels, it appears to be your department. Look at this: “Mobile homes worth hundreds of millions of dollars are deteriorating in a muddy field in Arkansas and may never be used to house victims of Hurricane Katrina because of a dispute over where to install them, federal officials acknowledged. Only about 2700 of the 25,000 mobile homes ordered at a cost of $850 million have been installed, and at least 10,000 are sitting in Hope, Arkansas, according to documents and statements from FEMA officials. Though about 55,000 Louisiana families are still waiting for a manufactured housing unit, the mobile homes may never be used because FEMA regulations prohibit them from being installed in flood-prone coastal areas, federal officials said.” $850 million in mobile homes that can’t be used.
SEC’Y CHERTOFF: Well, actually, they will be used. The challenge we face is where do we put them. It is true that there are certain parts of Louisiana and Mississippi where you can’t put mobile homes because they’re in a flood plain. And that’s partly by regulation and partly common sense. Because you don’t want to put something that’s fixed, that’s a mobile home, in a place that’s going to flood again. We originally hoped that at least some significant number would be placed in other parts of Louisiana and Mississippi. It’s turned out that some communities don’t want to have that happen, and some people don’t want to have that happen. And we’re not going to force them to take these mobile homes. We estimate that several thousand more will be used for victims of Katrina and Rita. We are using others for victims of the wildfires out West. Still others will be used this hurricane season. So what we anticipate is that ultimately all of this stock of mobile homes will be used in disaster-related housing efforts.
MR. RUSSERT: But there are still thousands of people who are still homeless?
SEC’Y CHERTOFF: There are. And we are—we are procuring trailers as quickly as we can. Now the biggest problem, Tim, is there is just a total shortage of housing in Louisiana. And that is, we’ve been battling that economic issue for the last six months.
MR. RUSSERT: Senator Trent Lott of Mississippi has said “Enough already.” Let’s take FEMA out of Homeland Security and report directly to the president. Let FEMA work and deal with hurricanes and natural disasters and let Chertoff and Homeland Security worry about terrorism. Why not do that?
SEC’Y CHERTOFF: I think that would be a big mistake for a couple of reasons. First of all, to the extent things worked well in Katrina, it was only because we had a unified department and could get the Coast Guard involved, we could get TSA involved to help us construct an air bridge for evacuation. We would lose all of that extra help if we separated FEMA out. That’s the first thing.
Second, catastrophes don’t come labeled. Sometimes you know it’s a natural disaster, sometimes you know it’s a terrorist act, sometimes you don’t know. I think the last thing we want to do is to have a situation where we have two parallel agencies fighting over who manages a particular type of a disaster.
Third thing, and I want to say this in the strongest possible terms, we’re coming up on hurricane season. Nature doesn’t wait for us to do yet another reorganization. If FEMA is pulled out of the Department of Homeland Security, I will predict with virtual certainty that we will be much less prepared this hurricane season than we will be if we keep the department together and finish the job of integrating.
MR. RUSSERT: If a tropical storm, a four or a five, hits New Orleans will the city flood again?
SEC’Y CHERTOFF: Well, this I think is a very serious question which I intend to address with the mayor and the governor, and actually the governors of both states in the next month. We are not fully rebuilt. The levees are supposed to be rebuilt by June to a level better than they were before Katrina. But we don’t know if there’s a dead-on hit, the worst scenario, we could still very easily have flooding. We’ve got impermanent structures, we’ll still have some debris around. So we need to have a plan starting—you know, we need to start to build a plan now about how we will evacuate and take care of people come June 1, and I’m going to be very insistent on making sure my department and DOD are working with state and local government to do that.
MR. RUSSERT: Let me turn to an issue that is confronting Washington, and that is our ports. And this a pretty interesting issue. “A company in the United Arab Emirates is poised to take over significant operations at six American ports as part of a corporate sale, leaving a country with ties to the September 11 hijackers with influence over a maritime industry considered vulnerable to terrorism.” This is from the Associated Press.
“The sale would affect commercial U.S. port operations in New York, New Jersey, Baltimore, New Orleans, Miami and Philadelphia. Critics of the proposed purpose—purchase say a port operator complicit in smuggling or terrorism could manipulate manifests and other records to frustrate Homeland Security’s already limited scrutiny of shipping containers and slip contraband past U.S. Custom inspectors.
Since the September 11 attacks, the FBI has said that money for the September 11 strikes was transferred to the hijackers primarily through the United Arab Emirate’s banking system, and much of the operational planning for the attacks took place inside the United Arab Emirates.
Many of the hijackers traveled to the U.S. through the United Arab Emirates. Also, the hijacker who steered a United Airlines flight into the World Trade Center’s south tower: born in the United Arab Emirates.
After the attacks, U.S. Treasury Department officials complained about a lack of cooperation by the United Arab Emirates and other Arab countries trying to track Osama bin Laden’s bank accounts.” Why would we allow a company based in United Arab Emirates be in charge of security for our ports?
SEC’Y CHERTOFF: Well, let me make it very clear, first of all. We have a very disciplined process, it’s a classified process, for reviewing any acquisition by a foreign company of assets that we consider relevant to national security. That process worked here. Without getting into classified information, what we typically do if there are concerns is we build in certain conditions, or requirements, that the company has to agree to to make sure we address the national security concerns. And here the Coast Guard and Customs and border protection really play the leading role for our department in terms of designing those conditions and making sure that they’re obeyed.
I do have to caution people, though. The fact that there were somebody born in United Arab Emirates or that some people went to the United Arab Emirates doesn’t mean that every company there is automatically guilty, or automatically has to be excluded from owning something here any more than we...
MR. RUSSERT: But why take a risk?
SEC’Y CHERTOFF: Well, I mean, you know, Richard Reid was British. He was going to blow up an airliner. We don’t say the British can’t buy companies here. We don’t take a risk. What we do is we require a very careful review—we have the FBI involved, we have the Department of Defense involved—of what the challenges are. We have, in fact, dealt with this port before because we deal with it overseas as part of our comprehensive global security network. We’ve built in, and we will build in safeguards to make sure that these kinds of things don’t happen. And, you know, this is part of the balancing of security, which is our paramount concern, with the need to still maintain a real robust global trading environment.
MR. RUSSERT: Before you go, based on your department’s performance during Katrina, why should the American people feel confident, comfortable, that you can keep us safe if, God forbid, there was a terrorist attack?
SEC’Y CHERTOFF: Tim, I warned in July that we were not as prepared as we need to be, and this is an immature department. And we’ve—you know, Department of Defense took 40 years to get to where it is now. We have made a lot of progress in some areas. There are some areas, including disaster management, where we have a lot more to do. The good news, I guess, is that if there’s anything redeeming out of this hurricane it is that we have learned some very valuable lessons. We have people who are very energized about getting the job of planning done, and getting the resources in, and I’m anticipating that we will be much better positioned this year. But I will warn everybody, this is still not something which is going to be done in six months. We’re going to keep getting better and better, but this is a process that’s going to take a little bit of time.
MR. RUSSERT: Mr. Secretary, we thank you for sharing your views.
SEC’Y CHERTOFF: Good to be here.
MR. RUSSERT: Coming next: What a week for Vice President Cheney. His judgement, his future, and the behavior of the press corps through the eyes of Maureen Dowd, Paul Gigot, David Gregory and Mary Matalin. They are all next right here on MEET THE PRESS.
MR. RUSSERT: Maureen Dowd, Paul Gigot, David Gregory, Mary Matalin on the week of the vice president right after this.
MR. RUSSERT: And we are back. Welcome all.
Mary Matalin, let me start with you. This was on Wednesday, Vice President Cheney accepting responsibility for what happened. Let’s watch.
(Videotape, February 15, 2006)
VICE PRES. CHENEY: Well, it was not Harry’s fault. You can’t blame anybody else. I’m the guy who pulled the trigger and shot my friend.
MR. RUSSERT: “It was not Harry’s fault.” It seems to have evolved somewhat over a few days. Let me go back to Monday. The vice president said that he talked to Katharine Armstrong about getting the story out. And the story that first appeared was this. “After shooting two quail, ranch owner Katharine Armstrong said Harry Whittington dropped back to pick them up, but he did not vocally announce to the others when he rejoined the group. The mistake exposed him to getting shot. ‘It’s incumbent on him,’ Armstrong said. ‘He did not do that.’” And that same argument was picked up and echoed from the White House podium. Here’s the White House press secretary.
(Videotape, February 13, 2006)
Mr. SCOTT McCLELLAN: She pointed out that the protocol was not followed by Mr. Whittington when it came to notifying the others that he was there.
MR. RUSSERT: Initially, there was—seemed to be an attempt to blame Mr. Whittington. Was the vice president part of that? Aware of it?
MS. MARY MATALIN: Absolutely not. When I spoke to the vice president Sunday morning, he made it more than clear that it was his fault, no matter what the conditions, no matter how much the shared risk. That this should not be blamed on Harry. What happens here is that’s not the first account. That’s the wire account of the Corpus Christi Caller-Times. The very first account, Katharine Armstrong just lays out the facts, and she includes in there how apologetic the vice president was at the immediate scene.
What happens as these stories go from the local to the national is you stop giving out facts. You stop answering questions, and you start making denials. “No, Cheney wasn’t drunk.” “No, it wasn’t Cheney’s fault.” So as it progressed through the week, that’s what happened.
If you go back to Katharine Armstrong’s original description, given in context to locals who understand the frequency of hunting accidents, unfortunately, the culture of Texas, through the eyes of a person who actually saw, who has an expertise, there was no fault described. She laid out the facts: what Mr. Whittington had done, what the vice president had done, and included, clearly, the vice president’s immediate reaction which was profuse apologies.
MR. RUSSERT: But they were quoting her directly, and many suggested that she also told the papers that she had first thought that the vice president had had a heart attack, so maybe she didn’t see the whole event.
MS. MATALIN: She saw enough to be able to describe the—what happened and who was where and what happened immediately afterwards. Yeah, that’s the problem with this. That’s why—that is exactly why you’re—Tim, you’re going right to the point of why we wanted to have—rather than just throw something out there that night or the first thing the next morning, why we wanted to take our time. Speak to the sheriff so we’d have the voice of authority. Have Katharine be able to share with other witnesses, and she could be an eyewitness. That’s why we wanted to take our time because there were differing accounts, and there was mass confusion. And all—the whole first night was a very human reaction to get Harry and his family attended to.
MR. RUSSERT: You mentioned “speak to the sheriff,” and this is another issue raised. The “Secret Service spokesman Eric Zahren said at least one deputy was turned away shortly after the shooting because security personnel at the Armstrong ranch were not aware of the agreement between the sheriff and the Secret Service.” What was the agreement? Why wasn’t the vice president interviewed that night after Mr. Whittington was brought to the hospital? Why wasn’t he interviewed by the sheriff that night? Why did they—we wait 14 hours for an interview?
MS. MATALIN: The vice president was informed of the decision to be interviewed the next morning. The original request was that he be interviewed at 10 o’clock. He asked if he could move it up to 8 o’clock because he wanted to—shoot his day up to get to Corpus Christi to see Mr. Whittington. Now it took The Washington Post an entire week to speak to the culture of rural enforcement in a hunting area in south Texas. And it was through the voice of none other than the Democratic state party chairman.
This is rural law enforcement. They hunt from October till the end of February. There’s a presumption of accident. There was—everybody knows everybody down there. Somebody had talked to some ranch hand and said this is an accident. They never go screeching in there. Some deputy who had heard it another way went to some other border post, and nobody there wasn’t going to be allowed in to talk to anybody or let anybody in to see the vice president. That’s just national security. But the suggestion there by the press, not the locals, was that Cheney was covering up. That it’s always done this way. No, it’s not always done that way. If someone had done some reporting or even called the Democratic state party chairman, they would have learned it’s always done the other way where there’s a presumption of accident.
MR. RUSSERT: The suggestion being that perhaps there had been drinking going on that afternoon, and it could have been detected that evening as opposed to the next morning. And again, pointing to Ms. Armstrong’s own words, quote, “None in the hunting party was drinking alcohol, Armstrong said. No, zero, zippo. No one was drinking.” And then on Wednesday, the vice president, with FOX News, said, quote, “I had a beer at lunch. After lunch we take a break, go back to ranch headquarters. Then we took about an hour-long tour of the ranch. We didn’t go back into the field to hunt quail until, oh, sometime after 3 p.m.” Was alcohol in any way, shape or form consumed during the afternoon? And should we accept the president’s “a beer” as literally one beer?
MS. MATALIN: What Katharine Armstrong was answering is a literal fact going to the question she was asked, which is always the case on the Armstrong ranch, you don’t drink and hunt, and you don’t hunt with drinkers. And that’s what the sheriff reported, that’s what she reported. It is true that the vice president had a beer at lunch, and let me ask anybody sitting at this table who knows the vice president, has known him for many years, has seen him in social situations, he’s known not to be a drinker. But let me ask you a more logical question—you think the Secret Service would let the vice president out, tanked up, with a loaded gun, or let him be around anybody who’s drunk with a loaded gun? It just defies common sense that the press would even go there. And that’s why these adversarial question-and- answer periods set up the presumption that Cheney would be drunk, or having to deny that Cheney was drunk, as opposed to presuming what we all know, that he doesn’t drink, he wouldn’t hunt and drink, the Secret Service wouldn’t let anybody around him who is drinking and hunting.
That’s why we get into the—that’s why we take our time, try to slow down, try to get as many facts out as possible before we engage in what ended up, as was the case this weekend, happens way too frequently inside this bubble, inside this parallel universe of a feeding frenzy in the briefing room.
MR. RUSSERT: Scott McClellan said he was speaking for himself and the president when he said that this could have been handled better. And many people pointed to the president’s own book, “A Call—A Charge to Keep,” when he was governor—running for governor, he had a hunting accident, he shot a killdeer rather than a dove, and immediately went to the press, had a news conference, accepted responsibility, and said, “People watch the way you handle things, they get a feeling they like you and trust you.” Could the vice president have handled this better?
MS. MATALIN: Killing a different bird is a slightly different situation than shooting your friend in the face. And I think what most normal people would empathize with—that is, people who have a full complement of human empathy—is that a—that person who shot his friend in the face would be most concerned with that friend’s health, with giving that friend help, with getting to that friend’s family, with consoling the other parties that were in the—with him that weekend. That’s a little bit different situation. The problem with these rules is that they’re presumed to be inviolate. This vice president, who is logical and who is human, was not following the conventional rule, but he wasn’t doing anything that was irrational, that’s for sure.
MR. RUSSERT: Once he was assured—excuse me—that Mr. Whittington was in the ambulance, on his way to his hospital, being transferred to another hospital, that any time during that night, before or after dinner, did he consider picking up the phone, calling the president, saying, “Mr. President, I want to tell you something terrible has happened. I shot a man inadvertently in a hunting accident, and I wanted you to be—to know and hear it from me”?
MS. MATALIN: Well, understand, what’s going on in the course of the evening, they’re in this 50,000- acre farm, it took a half-hour for the ambulance to even reach them, they had to get out, so—by the time they got back and called the family, located them, got them to the hospital, and made all those machinations, it’s now, what, 10 or 11 o’clock back here? The vice president knew that the president had been informed within the hour, he knew that Karl Rove, who’s dear friends with Katharine Armstrong and Harry Whittington, had called, so he knew that the president had a full accounting. I’m not—this question’s repeatedly asked—I’m not sure what the implication of it is. What purpose would have been served by the vice president then waking up the president to say, “Feel my pain”? He knew he was fully informed, and he knew he was informed from personal friends, not just from the medics and the Secret Service. I just am hard-pressed to understand what is—what are we trying to—what itch are we trying to scratch?
MR. RUSSERT: “Well, I’m involved in a story, a tragedy that may affect this administration,” and certainly it played out for the course of a week, “and you should be aware of it, Mr. President.”
MS. MATALIN: But he was aware of it, he was aware of it.
MR. RUSSERT: And here—in initial reports, the White House chief of staff did not know the vice president had been the shooter.
MS. MATALIN: But Karl knew the entire story from Katharine. And I’ll tell you something else, another human element, everybody in that White House, particularly those from Texas, are long-time friends with Harry Whittington. And I’ll tell you something else, another human element here: Everybody in that White House, particularly those from Texas, are longtime friends with Harry Whittington. I—I—all the conversations I’ve had after the fact, everyone’s concern was about Mr. Whittington and about Merce Whittington and about Sally Whittington and the whole family, and indeed the Armstrongs. Sorry, there was a human response before there was a political response.
MR. RUSSERT: Mr. Gregory, let me talk about the media response. You’re the White House correspondent for our NBC News. This is an exchange that you had with the White House press secretary Scott McClellan. Let’s watch:
(Videotape, February 14, 2006)
Mr. McCLELLAN: Other people in this room have questions, and we have an event coming up.
MR. DAVID GREGORY: I’m sorry, but I’m not getting answers here, Scott, and I’m trying to be forthright with you, but don’t tell me that you’re giving us complete answers when you’re not actually answering the question. Because everybody knows what is an answer and what is not an answer. And the final...
Mr. McCLELLAN: Well, David, now you want to make this about you, and it’s not about you, it’s about what happened. And that’s what I’m trying...
MR. GREGORY: I’m sorry that you feel that way.
Mr. McCLELLAN: ...and I’m trying to provide answers to the questions.
MR. GREGORY: But that’s not what I’m trying to do. I want...
MR. RUSSERT: There also had been an off-camera exchange that Gigot just referred to. Scott McClellan: “David, hold on, the cameras aren’t on right now. You can do this later.” David Gregory: “Don’t accuse me of trying to pose for the cameras. Don’t be a jerk to me personally when I’m asking you a serious question.” McClellan: “You don’t have to yell.” “I will yell,” Gregory. “If you want to use the—that podium to try to take shots at my personally, which I don’t appreciate, then I will raise my voice because that’s wrong.” McClellan: “Calm down, Dave, calm down.” Gregory: “I’ll calm down when I feel like calming down. You answer the question.”
Looking back at that a few days later, your sense?
MR. GREGORY: I think I made a mistake. I think it was inappropriate for me to lose my cool with the press secretary representing the president. I don’t think it was professional of me. I was frustrated, I said what I said, but I think that you should never speak that way, as my wife reminded me, number one. And number two, I think it created a diversion from some of the serious questions in the story, so I regret that. I was wrong, and I apologize.
But I think what—what’s interesting about all of this is that Mary and others in the White House have been eager to stoke this as a false debate between the vice president and the White House press corps, attempting to cast this as the White House press corps is a ping-pong in the culture wars. The reality is that that false debate obscures some real facts. You laid out some of them in terms of questions that were raised about how the vice president initially disclosed this, making the decision to not disclose it himself and have Katharine Armstrong do it.
It also overlooks a very important point, and that is there was disagreement, as Mary well knows, within the White House about how this was handled: the question of why the vice president didn’t call the president. Also the fact that there were some White House advisers who told me this week, it made the president look bad, it raised questions about who was really running the rodeo in the White House.
The vice president created these questions. It’s also emblematic of the rather secretive style with the press by the vice president. And so I think it—it’s fair to disagree with the White House press corps, or with me, or the White House press corps generally, I think, is more important, in terms of how we go about answers. But I, for one, don’t apologize for pushing hard for answers. I think people who view the news or view what I do for a partisan lens may think I was making a political statement. I was not. I make no apologies for pushing hard for information because sometimes it’s hard to get.
MR. RUSSERT: Bill Crystal, the editor of the Weekly Standard, said this: “The White House press corps is crazy and pompous, and a lot of them are personally obnoxious as well. Instead of asking about Iran going nuclear, Hamas setting up a government in Palestine, 42 of the 60 questions to Scott McClellan were the White House press corps whining that they didn’t get a phone call late Saturday night.”
MR. GREGORY: Right. And let me just make one other point. Again, it’s easy to try to make this a debate about the White House press corps vs. the vice president. No matter how you feel about the White House press corps, and—and we’re worthy of criticism, and we can take our lumps—this is about how the vice president chooses to communicate to the American people. We are a proxy for the American people. Whether you have faith in us or not, and we do make mistakes, we are still a proxy. This is about how the vice president chooses to communicate to the public. My view is not that I should have been informed or others should have been informed. It’s not about that. It’s—it’s a question of “Does the vice president have a responsibility to the American people to inform them of his public and private activities?”
MR. RUSSERT: Paul Gigot, you weighed in with an editorial on Wednesday, and a rather ironic one, I might say. “In the interest of restraining the imperial presidency, we have put together the following cover-up time line with the crucial questions that deserve to be answered.” And this is part of it: “Five thirty p.m., Saturday. Who is Harry Whittington and whom does he lobby for? Does he know Scooter Libby? Seven p.m., who else did Mr. Rove talk to about this in the interim? Was Valerie Plame ever mentioned? Eleven a.m., Sunday. Has Ms. Armstrong ever worked for Halliburton? One thirty p.m., everyone involved confirms more or less everything, or so the official line goes. Their agreement is very suspicious. As for the Beltway press corps, it has once again earned the esteem in which it is held by the American public.”
MR. PAUL GIGOT: It seemed like satire was appropriate to the occasion. Not looking at this, by the way, David, from—you know, I didn’t speak to anybody from the White House or the vice president’s office all week on this. It was looking at it from outside the Beltway and saying where did this story stand on the relative scale of importance? Looked to me to be a human tragedy, the vice president made a mistake, it was probably in not disclosing it himself, letting someone else do it. But that’s a relatively minor mistake. I think scandal standards are declining in Washington if this becomes another big, huge scandal which this is supposed to be a metaphor for for governing, a bunker of secrecy which is, I think, what some of the Democrats in the Senate were saying. This is a metaphor for the way this administration operates. I just don’t think that’s true. And so I think mockery was appropriate.
MR. RUSSERT: Maureen Dowd, Time magazine has been doing some polling on this whole issue. I want you to talk about that and everything else you’ve heard this morning. This is what Time found:
“Most Americans--65 percent—think that the vice president should have taken immediate responsibility. Half--56 percent—do not think he was trying to hide something from the public by waiting to disclose the incident. Ten percent think that the vice president should resign over his handling of the situation. More than half--58 percent says he is too secretive.” And when asked about the handling of the shooting incident, 52 percent approve of the vice president’s handling; 42 percent disapprove. What’s your sense?
MS. MAUREEN DOWD: Well, I think that the reason this story has evoked such fascination is because the vice president is like the phantom. You know, we hear the creak of the door as he passes, but we don’t really know what he’s up to. We don’t know his schedule. We don’t always know where he is. We don’t know what democratic institution he’s blowing off at any given minute, and so this allowed us to see how his behavior and judgement operated pretty much in real time—with the delay, but pretty much in real time.
And it covered all the problems of the Bush/Cheney administration: secrecy and stonewalling, then blowing off the rules that are at the heart of our democracy, then using a filter to try and put the truth out in a way that would most suit their political needs, and then bad political judgement in bungling a crisis. I mean, if there’s one thing the Republicans are great at since Reagan, it’s damage control. But he is such a control freak, you know, he doesn’t even care about the damage.
MR. RUSSERT: Mary Matalin, the last number in that Time magazine poll is the overall approval of the vice president, and here it is. Approve: 29 percent; disapprove 41 percent. A 29 percent approval rating. Will that hamper the vice president’s effectiveness in terms of governing, or helping fellow Republicans in the midterm elections?
MS. MATALIN: Absolutely not. Why—I’ve heard this repeatedly for six years. He’s been the whipping boy for the liberals for six years and whenever he does go out on this show or he puts something on the top of his speech, he carries the day with his message, he broke during the campaign, he wins the debate, so no, it doesn’t diminish his effectiveness, nor has his role in any way been diminished at the White House.
I love this reference to blowing off the institutions of democracy like freedom of the press. There—this is—we are not engaged in a false debate, we all have the same goal, which is to communicate with the public, to inform the public. What we thought we were doing Sunday morning by having an eyewitness who was there, who was an expert on hunting, going to a paper that understands the culture, who had the capacity to get it up on the wire quickly, was communicating and informing the public in which the vice president took responsibility, apologized, spoke to the reporter, was corroborated by the sheriff and our office, the vice president’s office. I no longer work there. I don’t see how that’s violating the rules of the institution, the hallmarks of our democracy. We just didn’t go through them.
MR. RUSSERT: Right.
MS. MATALIN: Let me pose a question here. What if I called David, instead of Katherine calling the Corpus Christi Caller-Times and said, “I’m just going to talk to you.” I suppose David’s first reaction, or any of his colleagues would be, “No, let’s go through the process. Let’s call the pool. Let’s get everybody involved here.” No, I know that’s not true because I’ve done this with Cheney feeding frenzies before when he’s had to go in for routine heart checks. There’s no such thing as you just put out a statement. And if I ever did want to just give it to one guy—on occasion which I did so I had the time to walk through it—they would take it. They didn’t say, “Stop! Let’s go through the process and get the whole pool there.” So it’s disingenuous. I’m not starting a false debate. We’re not undermining the hallmarks of the democratic institution, the freedom of the presss. But its much ado about nothing, or in the words of Harry Whittington, “What’s all the hoopla about?”
MR. GREGORY: OK, but Mary, if that’s the case, first of all, you know, the vice president of the United States accidentally shot a man for the first time since Aaron Burr killed Alexander Hamilton. Much different circumstance, admittedly. And the vice president’s office doesn’t feel an obligation to disclose that to the American people directly. You do it through a ranch owner in Texas? It just—it just strikes me as odd.
MS. MATALIN: It strikes you as odd because you live in a parallel universe. It did not strike Americans as odd. Press were calling me saying, “The president—the vice president needs to apologize.” He did profusely and repeatedly to the victim of his accident, who was Harry Whittington.
MR. GREGORY: If you thought he did everything right, why is it that you ultimately—if the vice president said, “I did everything right,” by disclosing it the way he did, why did you do a big national interview this week?
MS. MATALIN: Because you went on a jihad, David. For four days you went on a Jihad.
MR. GREGORY: And that’s an unfortunate use of that word, by the way. This is not what that was.
MS. MATALIN: Oh, OK. All right. How—were you saving up for that line?
MS. DOWD: Mary, it isn’t only the press. He blows off the FISA courts, he blows off the Geneva Conventions, he blows off the U.N. to go to Iraq. He wants to blow off everything. He’s got a fever of about presidential erosion just the way he had a fever about going into Iraq.
MR. GIGOT: A hunting incident—the vice president can defend himself, but a hunting incident is a little different than the FISA court issue and the NSA.
MS. DOWD: But it’s part of same pattern.
MR. GIGOT: It is not—it’s—how about a little human empathy? I mean, he shot his friend. He’s—it’s really one of these incidents where I think we can all stand back and say, “Let’s have a debate about the FISA Courts. Let’s have a big debate about the NSA wiretaps. Those are important issues.” This is a very different kind of circumstance.
MS. DOWD: But then he shot his friend and blames his friend.
MR. RUSSERT: Can I just pick up on that? The Democrats were very, very outspoken, as you might expect. The front-runner for the Democratic nomination 2008, the senator from New York, Hillary Clinton, had a news conference, and this is what she offered.
(Videotape, February 14, 2006)
SEN. HILLARY CLINTON, (D-NY): A tendency of this administration from the top all the way to the bottom is to withhold information, to resist legitimate requests for information, to refuse to be forthcoming about information that is of significance and relevant to the job that all of you do and the interest of the American people. The refusal of this administration to level with the American people on matters large and small is very disturbing.
MR. RUSSERT: How do you respond?
MS. MATALIN: Putting aside the delicious hypocrisy there, what a missed opportunity. What if Mrs. Clinton had come out and said, “Do you know, I’m not a hunter, but lived in Arkansas and I understand this is an accident. These sorts of accidents are not infrequent. I don’t agree with Dick Cheney on many things, as you know, but I do know Lynn and Dick Cheney and I have to believe like any human being that he must be feeling awful right now for shooting his friend. And most of all, I don’t know Harry Whittington, but there’s a man lying in a hospital bed and I think we should all pass our thoughts and prayers along to him. Now, I’d like to talk about the serious business of this nation, things that I do not agree with the vice president on.” Well, Maureen Dowd, the diva of the smart set would be swooning. Moms across the country would be saying, “Hey, she thinks like me. That’s right. A guy shoots his friend. That’s not relative to my life. Let’s move on to serious issues.” No, that was a politically stupid thing to do, beside the delicious and just absurd hypocrisy of the forthcomingness of an administration.
MR. GREGORY: Tim, can I just speak up on a point that Paul made that I think is a good one, which is I think for the moment I’m the only one here representing the White House press corps. I think one of the things we may have missed this week is a little bit more empathy for the vice president, given what he went through. This is a terrible incident for two people, one of whom happened to be the vice president. I think we missed that a little bit in all of this questioning. I do think the vice president gave voice to that personal pain extremely well this week, which is why, I for one, was so pleased to see him speak publicly about it and, you know, why I think it would have been useful to speak about it more quickly.
MR. GIGOT: This is—I think this whole issue is an illustration of so many of our debates—every debate for that matter in Washington goes immediately to DEFCON 1, where both sides square off and it’s bad faith on this side, bad faith on that side. You know, sometimes people make mistakes, human mistakes. And this is one of those cases where I think we ought to treat it in human terms.
MS. DOWD: But I think reporters would have had a lot of empathy for the vice president if he hadn’t sent people out for four days to blame the victim. I mean, you know, I went hunting with Reagan and Bush Sr. and I’ve been on all these Republican hunting trips, and—but I’ve learned a lot about hunting this week. And the thing I’ve learned is that the shooter bears total responsibility for where everyone in the party is before he shoots, and they shoot abreast, not while someone’s fetching a duck. So for him to send all these people out to blame this guy for so many days was not appropriate.
MR. GREGORY: I just wonder what Mary Matalin and others would have said if Vice President Gore had accidentally shot someone with similar facts and the press corps was pressing hard for answers and if Mary or others wouldn’t think we would press just as hard for answers in that circumstance with this kind of story, I think that’s mistaken.
MS. MATALIN: I don’t know what answers you pressed for that weren’t contained in this story. And you want to know why there’s bad faith because this human accident, this tragedy is conveyed as “Vice president”—she just characterized it—“The vice president sent people out for four days to blame the victim.” No such thing occurred. In the first story it was clear from his spokesman and Katharine Armstrong that he took responsibility and he was apologetic. He did not send anybody out to take the blame. I’ve explained how these stories go from putting out facts to issuing denials. He wasn’t out—he wasn’t out—and he wasn’t not out for four days. If you go through those four days, the first day the story was out there in as complete a fashion as we could humanly do.
MR. RUSSERT: If Katharine Armstrong had not said, “We can’t contain this story,” is there a possibility that it would not have come out for...
MS. MATALIN: Absolutely, completely no. He called me—I talked to him, what, at 7 o’clock his time, it’s Sunday morning, the—and we made a judgment call at that point, because I had three calls preceding my conversation with him, which ranged from, “It’s a skin wound” to “Oh, he can still see.” I said, “We don’t have a coherent set of facts here.” And one thing we know about the press corps is if you put out evolving sets of facts while you’re collecting information, those bad facts are worse than no facts whatsoever. So I’m agreeing that we should all get from—at least not def-con one, so we move back to def-con five in these things? And could we not characterize this as he’s blowing off the hallmarks of a democratic in—all the hallmarks of a democratic institution?
MR. RUSSERT: The president went and had a town meeting discussion, and one of the questions raised by one of the participants was: “We’re all talking about vi—the media’s all talking about Vice President Cheney. What about Vice President Gore, Mr. President? He went to Saudi Arabia and he said that there had been terrible abuses against Arabs, that they had been indiscriminately rounded up, and he criticized the visa program between the U.S. and Saudi Arabia.” And that was being pushed very aggressively by some of the conservative blogs: Focus on Al Gore, not Dick Cheney.
MR. GIGOT: Well, I mean, the remarks were notable. I mean, I think, because when you go to a foreign country like that, particularly the heart of Wahabi Islam, and say, “We have indiscriminately rounded up Arabs in this country after 9/11.” First of all, I don’t think that’s true, I don’t remember us doing that. In fact, I think the reaction in America after 9/11 was quite gracious and understanding in trying to distinguish between terrorists and moderate Islams. So for him to go there and say that, I think it’s a real story.
MR. RUSSERT: Before we go, Maureen Dowd, take 15 seconds, what’s the most important thing we learned this week in covering this story?
MS. DOWD: Well, I do think, you know, I appreciate the vice president’s attempts to put on a sweet pink tie and, you know, to tell Wyoming about, you know, his lust as a newlywed. But I think Mary had a very difficult job humanizing Dick Cheney, because I don’t think he has given us much chance to see him as a human being.
MR. RUSSERT: David Gregory:
MR. GREGORY: I think it’s important to always try to turn the temperature down, as Mary suggests, but I do think there’s a tension between the White House press corps and the administration, and I don’t think that that should be demonized as a political disagreement. It’s, in some ways, healthy, and it’s a reality.
MR. RUSSERT: Paul Gigot:
MR. GIGOT: Well, I think—well, let’s make some distinctions between stories that really matter, and we ought to fight and fight hard about it and—where secrecy is an issue, and let’s distinguish between those and what are really human accidents.
MR. RUSSERT: Mary Matalin:
MS. MATALIN: You know, in the average American, in the parallel universe, it’s not about us, it’s not about President Bush, it’s not about Dick Cheney, it’s about them, and they would like us all to focus on what are we doing for them? Well, let’s have debate on policies and let’s distinguish political events of no consequence to the nation from those that are.
MR. RUSSERT: To be continued. Mary Matalin, David Gregory, Paul Gigot, Maureen Dowd. We’ll be right back.
MR. RUSSERT: That’s all for today. We’ll be back next week with an exclusive interview with California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger. On the set here at MEET THE PRESS: Arnold Schwarzenegger. A special time next Sunday, 11 a.m. Eastern and Pacific zones, 10 a.m. Central after early morning Olympic coverage. Check our Web site for times in your area, mtp.msnbc.com.
If it’s Sunday, it’s MEET THE PRESS.