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Bush says Cheney handled accident ‘just fine’

President Bush said Thursday he was satisfied with Vice President Dick Cheney's explanation about his shooting accident in Texas.
Vice President Dick Cheney talks with Brit Hume of Fox News Channel about the accidental shooting
Vice President Dick Cheney talks Wednesday with Brit Hume of Fox News Channel about the accidental shooting of hunting partner Harry Whittington.David Bohrer / White House via Reuters
/ Source: The Associated Press

President Bush said Thursday he was satisfied with Vice President Dick Cheney's explanation about his shooting accident in Texas.

“I thought the vice president handled the issue just fine,” the president said. “Yesterday when he was here in the Oval Office I saw the deep concern he had about a person who he wounded. I thought yesterday’s explanation was a very strong and important explanation to make to the American people.”

The remarks were Bush’s first since the incident.

Meanwhile, a Texas county sheriff’s office said against Cheney in the incident, and closed the investigation.

Bush said it was “a deeply traumatic moment for him and obviously it was a tragic moment for Harry Whittington.”

Bush said Democrats were drawing “the wrong conclusion about a tragic accident” when they say it depicts the White House as overly secretive.

Earlier Thursday, Bush spokesman Scott McClellan had said Bush was satisfied with Cheney’s account of his hunting accident, but he declined to say whether the president felt it should have been revealed earlier.

The accident happened on Saturday but was not publicly revealed until the next day.

Cheney spoke publicly Wednesday
Cheney himself spoke publicly about the accident for the first time Wednesday in an exclusive interview with Fox News Channel. He said he did not see his hunting companion Harry Whittington until just after he fired on a covey of quail and peppered him with bird shot in the face, neck and chest.

Cheney described it as “one of the worst days of my life” and rejected the notion that Whittington bears any responsibility. “I’m the guy who pulled the trigger and shot my friend,” Cheney said.

“The president’s satisfied with what the vice president said yesterday,” McClellan said Thursday.

Bush added later Thursday, “Now our concerns are directed towards the recovery of our friend. I knew Harry Whittington when I was the governor of Texas and in Austin. A fine man. He's been involved in our state's politics for a long period of time.”

Spokesmen wanted it released sooner
Cheney also defended his decision to keep it from the public until a day after it happened.

The vice president acknowledged that McClellan and Bush communications adviser Dan Bartlett urged him to release information about the accident quickly. But he said he made the ultimate decision to have the owner of the Texas ranch to reveal it to a local newspaper without any official announcement from the White House.

Attorney Harry Whittington at his desk in his downtown Austin, TX. office, on Tuesday, Jan. 25, 2005. Vice-President Dick Cheney accidentally shot Whittington in the face with a shotgun while on a hunting trip in Texas on Sunday, Feb. 12, 2006. (Kelly West/Austin American-Statesman/WpN) **Exclusive Image Must Call Prior To Use 212 871-1215** **No Tabloids, No Internet** Kelly West / Austin American Statesman

That decision created a major public relations problem for the White House, with some Republicans even suggesting that it made the situation worse by suggesting the possibility of some sort of cover-up.

Asked whether Bush encouraged Cheney to speak out Wednesday, McClellan said, “Obviously there are internal discussions that we have, and I’ll leave those internal.”

Cheney said the accident happened after Whittington stepped out of the hunting party to retrieve a downed bird in deep cover. Cheney said he and a third hunter walked about 100 yards away to where another covey had been spotted. Immediately after he shot at a bird flying to his right, he said he saw his 78-year-old companion in his line of fire.

“The image of him falling is something I’ll never ever be able to get out of my mind,” Cheney said. “I fired, and there’s Harry falling. It was, I’d have to say, one of the worst days of my life at that moment.”

Sun in his eyes
He said Whittington was dressed properly in blaze orange and the upper part of his body was visible, but that he was standing in a gully with the sun behind him, which affected his view.

“I saw him fall, basically. It had happened so fast,” Cheney said. “He was struck in the right side of his face, his neck and his upper torso on the right side of his body.”

“I take it you missed the bird?” Hume asked.

“I have no idea,” Cheney said. “I mean, you focused on the bird, but as soon as I fired and saw Harry there, everything else went out of my mind.”

He said Whittington was conscious and breathing but stunned silent.

“I ran over to him,” Cheney said. “He was laying there on his back, obviously, bleeding. You could see where the shot struck him.

“I said, ‘Harry, I had no idea you were there.’ He didn’t respond,” Cheney said.

A beer at lunch
Cheney said he had had a beer at lunch that day but nobody was drinking when they went back out to hunt a couple hours later. Law enforcement officials have ruled out alcohol as a factor.

Cheney said he still believes it was the right decision to allow ranch owner Katharine Armstrong to disclose the accident to the Corpus Christi Caller-Times the day after the accident.

“We really didn’t know until Sunday morning that Harry was probably going to be OK, that it looked like there hadn’t been any serious damage to any vital organ,” he said. “And that’s when we began the process of notifying the press.”

Armstrong has suggested that Whittington was at fault in the shooting because, she said, he failed to announce himself as he returned to the hunting line after breaking off to retrieve a downed bird. But Cheney, who has been hunting for at least 12 years, said in no uncertain terms that Whittington was not at fault.

“You can talk about all of the other conditions that exist at the time, but that’s the bottom line and — it was not Harry’s fault,” he said.

Whittington was in stable condition Thursday at a Texas hospital, two days after doctors said one of the pellets traveled to his heart and he had what they called “a mild heart attack.”