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Bush kept in the dark about ports deal

Hardball Correspondent David Shuster investigates the  political reaction to the  administration keeping President Bush in the dark about the U.S. ports deal until after it was complete.
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In another case of President Bush being caught off base again, spokesman Scott McClellan acknowledged on Wednesday, the president did not know about the sale of U.S. ports until after his administration had already approved it.

MCClellan said, “The president learned of this recently, he became aware of it.  And there was no objection raised by any of the departments during the review process or any concerns expressed about potential national security threats.”

He referred to the group of senior government and White House officials who examined these transactions and are known as the Committee on Foreign Investment in the United States.  The committee is chaired by Treasury Department Secretary John Snow and includes officials from the departments of defense, justice, commerce, state and homeland security.

After the president was briefed on what his administration had already decided, and in the wake of objections by Congress, the president, according to McClellan, spoke with the cabinet secretary of every government agency involved and asked “ Are you comfortable with this transaction going forward?  And each and every one expressed that they were comfortable with this transaction going forward.”

But when Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld was asked about this issue, Rumsfeld said he didn’t know anything about it until a few days ago.

He said, “I wasn’t aware of this until this weekend, as I think is the case with Pete.”

And opponents continue to arresting to argue the Bush administration has not done its due diligence.

Senator Charles Schumer (D), New York, said, “The review has been casual and cursory.  And the bottom line is very simple.  When it comes to security, you can’t be too careful.”

Democrats regularly criticize the president, but now even top Republicans are against him.  House Speaker Dennis Hastert and Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist are promising to block the sale.  They maintain it is inappropriate to allow U.S. port facilities to be run by a state-owned company of the United Arab Emirates.

The conflict between top Republicans and the Bush White House, which is in the midst of negotiating a free trade deal with the UAE, has left bitter feelings all around.

The president’s advisers are infuriated that Senate Majority Leader Frist only gave the White House an hour’s notice this week before publicly opposing the president.  But what notice did White House staff give the president about the transaction?

Tom Ridge, former Homeland Security Secretary commented, “I’m not sure who said what to whom and when they told the president.  But it’s pretty clear, at least that someone may have underestimated the political fallout.”

And top Republicans in Congress are apoplectic that White House officials didn’t think about that possible fallout ahead of time.  Behind the scenes, GOP lawmakers today described intense efforts to negotiate a compromise with the White House and White House officials to help soothe members of Congress acknowledged making a mistake.

McClellan also said,  “We probably should have briefed members of Congress about it sooner.  And we are talking with members of Congress about it.”

Congress is also hearing from some high profile lobbyists, including Bob Dole.  NBC News has confirmed the former Senate majority leader and Republican presidential candidate has been retained by Dubai Ports World to help push for their transaction. 

Meanwhile, if D.P. World needs any strategic advice, the company has an existing consultant arrangement with Madeleine Albright, the former Clinton secretary of state. 

Against all of this, top congressional Republicans appear to be digging in their heels, promising not just to block the sale, but reform the way ports are operated and run. 

As it stands, most U.S. port facilities are owned and operated by companies based overseas, including companies based in China.  But this transaction involving the Arab Emirates has touched a nerve across Capitol Hill.  And in a role reversal, it is now President Bush who is being lectured about this post-9/11 era.  I’m David Shuster for HARDBALL in Washington.

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