Guests: Kelly O‘Donnell, Dan Bartlett, Jay Carney, Ken Herman, Dana Milbank
DAVID GREGORY, MSNBC ANCHOR: Tonight, a special edition the RACE. The new scathing memoir from the president‘s former press secretary is the shot heard ‘round Washington. Response tonight from the former counselor to the president.
And we will survey the impact of all of this on the campaign. The RACE FOR THE WHITE HOUSE rolls on.
Welcome to the RACE everyone, I‘m David Gregory, happy to have you. Your stop for the fast pace, the bottom line, every point of view in the room. Tonight, the book everyone is talking about. It‘s called “What Happened: Inside the Bush White House in Washington‘s Culture of Deception.”
For the hour, I have gathered a panel comprised of journalists, who, along with me, have covered the Bush White House, in most cases from the very beginning, campaign 2000. In just a moment, I‘ll also go one-on-one with Dan Bartlett, the president‘s former counselor and Scott McClellan‘s boss inside the White House. He says he‘s surprised and disappointed by this book.
But first, my own headline on the book everyone is talking about. Wow, I have known McClellan since the 2000 campaign and this memoir is a shock. He is critical of the war, bashes the president for believing his own spin, being out of touch on Iraq and Hurricane Katrina, and above all makes it clear that the CIA leak case left him feeling betrayed and angry.
I know based on my own reporting that McClellan felt his credibility was shot because he felt Scooter Libby and Karl Rove misled him about their role in the leak case. He was also pushed out of his job. The chief of staff at the time, Josh Bolten, wanted a shake-up. This was after Bush was re-elected and had problems after that first year of the second term, and McClellan was viewed as loyal, yes, but ineffective.
All of that might help explain why he wrote this book. He will face tough questions about why he didn‘t resign earlier if he had such passionate views counter to what the administration was advocating and whether his publisher put him up to writing a controversial tell-all book now.
But none of that will diminish the book‘s impact. This is the first time a Bush insider has broken ranks and criticized the president in such stark terms at a time when the 2008 race is defined by Iraq and the legacy of the Bush years.
Critics of the president abound, but this book makes clear not all of those closest to the president agreed with the course that he was setting. Joining me now is Dan Bartlett, former counselor to the president. Dan was at the White House, of course, during Scott McClellan‘s tenure as deputy press secretary under Ari Fleischer, and as press secretary.
Dan, thanks for being here.
DAN BARTLETT, FMR. WHITE HOUSE COMMUNICATIONS DIR.: Good to be with you, David.
GREGORY: As I just laid it out, the power of the book is that it comes from the inside, somebody who knew Bush well, who‘s now starkly critical about Bush as a leader and about the run-up to the war. What‘s your reaction?
BARTLETT: Well, I thought we knew Scott well, but obviously we didn‘t. I think all of us who worked with Scott, worked in the West Wing, I have known him for over 10 years and consider him to be a good friend. And for this now to be the place and venue in which he‘s airing all of these misgivings about the president, about the administration is quite baffling, to be honest.
I never got a hint of his views, nor did any of his other colleagues while he served in the White House. He went before the American people on a daily basis, defending the position, advancing the position of this president on the very issues he now says he had deep misgivings about.
I have heard other people who have been press secretary before, including Ari Fleischer, say that would be very hard for somebody like Ari to do, to go up there and say something that he didn‘t believe in or at least thought wasn‘t true.
So that‘s the part I think that is the hardest thing for us to swallow, and that is that he is just now airing these positions when he wouldn‘t even confide in some of his closest friends and colleagues there at the White House.
GREGORY: Do you still consider him a friend?
BARTLETT: I do. I‘m not one of those who would—I haven‘t had a chance to talk to him. I‘m not one of those who just throws people under the bus without having a chance to talk to them. I don‘t know when that will take place.
But I‘m obviously deeply disappointed, I think a lot of people who know him are and that‘s why we‘re all kind of left scratching our heads.
GREGORY: Let me read to you a portion of the book that deals with the case that was made for war. He says that the case relied upon propaganda, he said that the administration shaded the truth when it came to making the case. And then he says this, I‘ll give you a chance to respond after I read it.
“As the campaign accelerated, caveats”—this is about the war, “and qualifications were downplayed or dropped all together. Contradictory intelligence was largely ignored or simply disregarded. Evidence based on high confidence from the intelligence community was lumped together with intelligence of lesser confidence.
“A nuclear threat was added to the biological and chemical threats to create a greater sense of gravity and urgency. Support for terrorism was given greater weight by playing up a dubious al Qaeda connection to Iraq. Building public support by making the strongest possible case for war was the top priority regardless of whether or not it was the most intellectually honest approach to the issue of war and peace.
“Message discipline sometimes meant avoiding forthrightness, for example, evasively dismissing questions about the risks of war as speculation.”
The power of this opinion, again, is that this was somebody on the inside who validates, Dan, a lot of the criticism from outside, from critics of this war, Democrats and Republican.
BARTLETT: I think you‘re right. I think it‘s the most troubling part of this book and I think what‘s most troubling for me is the fact that he‘s using some of these retrospective or definitive statements, yet at the time he wasn‘t involved in any of those decisions or was he involved in the deliberations.
And there‘s not much evidence provided in the book where it shows where propaganda or shading the truth or dropping caveats were actually offered as evidence in the book. And.
GREGORY: What—can I just interrupt for one second?
GREGORY: Why does it matter? Because I have actually offered this analysis myself, and I have been kind of thinking it through. To you, why does it matter whether he was involved in the deliberation on the policy in terms of his opinion about that this was what was done? He certainly knew the president, he knew you, he knew people who were involved.
BARTLETT: No, not just the deliberations, but he‘s talking there as part of the communications effort, which he was a part of, that there were deliberate attempts to drop caveats, to make a case about nuclear intelligence that wasn‘t there, to make assertions.
He‘s saying that as if he has a definitive position and angle to make that judgment. And I‘m saying he didn‘t. And that‘s the only point I‘m trying to make is that he was not in the position now—he wasn‘t in position then and he certainly isn‘t in a position now to say and back up these claims that he‘s now making that that was the case.
The fact of the matter, David, and you have reported on this a lot, we were wrong about the intelligence, we‘ve been very forthright about that. But that doesn‘t mean that we—you can‘t conflate that point into one in saying that we deliberately misled the American people, that we were lying and trumping up intelligence to try to lead the American people to war.
People were making judgments based on what they thought was accurate at the time. And that‘s probably the most troubling aspect of this book is that he‘s just picking up a lot of that left-wing criticism and in fact he was not in the position nor did he ever raise these issues when he took on the job as press secretary, where he took on the position in which he was stepping out and talking about and defending the president‘s position, defending the case for war, defending the fact that Saddam Hussein was a threat to the United States of America.
He repeated all of those positions. And now we‘re supposed to believe that he didn‘t believe anything he was saying. And that‘s where it‘s so troubling.
GREGORY: Let‘s move on to the CIA leak case and why. Why did he write this book? I said out at the outset here that my own reporting indicates to me he was deeply wounded by how he was handled in the Plame mess. He went out and said things that were not true. He feels he was misled by Karl Rove and Scooter Libby.
He thinks the president was misinformed, was deceived, but he was unwittingly part of it. He thinks the vice president even encouraged him to lie. Do you think that motivated him to write this book?
BARTLETT: No, and I don‘t know, and I‘m curious to see how he answers those questions himself tomorrow when he appears on NBC and other news organizations. I mean, look, that whole period and chapter in the White House was a very difficult one.
The leak investigation was difficult for—in a very practical way. The prosecutor told us that we couldn‘t talk to each other about what was happening, what our views were, what we felt about it. So it was very compartmentalized and siloed in the sense that we were told and prohibited from talking to each other.
So we had to discern from what everybody was going through, nobody went through a more difficult period than Scott, because he was the guy who had to get up there behind the podium and say nothing, essentially, every day, day-in, day-out.
And having said that, though, I don‘t think that gives you license to then have a sweeping indictment across the entire administration and decisions that had nothing to do with the leak investigation. And quite frankly that‘s what he has done with this book.
GREGORY: Let me conclude with this point. Scott makes the case that President Bush was not prone to self doubt, didn‘t engage in self doubt, didn‘t like to revisit decisions once they were made, lacked inquisitiveness, had a detrimental lack of reflection.
This isn‘t a question of whether he was in the room when big decisions were made. He knew him well enough to make that judgment. How important and how powerful is that commentary about this president and do you agree with it?
BARTLETT: Well, obviously, he‘s giving insight into a relationship he had with the president for more than 10 years. It is quite odd that I come across with a completely different observation having worked even closer with the president over a longer period of time.
And being in a lot of those meetings where the president wrestled with the very decisions, the most difficult decisions the president has to wrestle with, the question about war and peace and taking—putting men and women into combat, I saw him wrestle with those decisions.
I saw heated debate, differences of opinion being provided by different advisers on his national security team. I know that those decisions weighed heavily on him, they still do to this day, since we are losing men and women in combat.
So I don‘t think the president took them lightly, I think the president deliberated about them. I‘m not here to say that everything went right and nothing went wrong, that‘s not the case. I think the question.
GREGORY: All right. Dan, I‘m going to lose you—I‘m just going to lose you on the satellite. I don‘t want to cut you off, but I think you‘re just going to disappear because the satellite is going to close down. So I‘m sorry to have to clip that point. And there, we did lose—my thanks to Dan Bartlett for joining us, it‘s because the satellite window was booked a certain way and when it‘s done it‘s done.
We‘re going to take a break here and come back. Scott McClellan rocking the political world with his upcoming book, painting a very unpleasant picture of President Bush and the administration. You‘ll get more—the provocative excerpts when we come back with our panel, all White House insiders. They have been there from the beginning. We‘re back on the RACE.
GREGORY: We‘re back on a special edition of the RACE tonight. We‘re talking about the former White House press secretary Scott McClellan‘s new book, this is it. I‘ve got it here. We‘ll put it up on the screen. “What Happened: Inside the Bush White House and Washington‘s Culture of Deception.”
Joining us now, an all-star panel of experts on all things related to the White House. My colleague Kelly O‘Donnell, she covers Capitol Hill and the McCain campaign for NBC News, and during the McClellan years we were partners at the White House.
Dana Milbank, national political reporter for The Washington Post and an MSNBC political analyst, he covered Bush from the very beginning, we covered it together in 2000.
Jay Carney, same deal, he‘s TIME magazine‘s Washington bureau chief, but back then he covered the White House and he did it since 2000.
And Ken Herman, White House correspondent for Cox Newspapers, not only a White House correspondent, but he covered Bush back when he was governor. This is a panel that knows Scott McClellan, knows the president.
We‘re going to get into it. And as we do every night, let‘s turn to our panelists for each of their takes on the most important political story of the day, it‘s “The Headline” out of Scott McClellan‘s book.
Jay Carney, start us off here, what‘s your take on all of this?
JAY CARNEY, WASHINGTON BUREAU CHIEF, TIME: David, my “Headline” today is Scottie, we hardly knew you. This book comes as such a revelation not just because of what‘s contained within it, but almost more so because of who wrote it. There are few people that I could imagine who were less likely to write this book.
Few people from the president‘s inner circle, few people who came with him from Texas to Washington, to the White House who I would have predicted three, four, five or eight years ago would have written a book like this that were less likely than Scott McClellan.
Scott, like a number of Texas loyalists, owes his entire political career pretty much to George W. Bush. And he owes the fact that he‘s able to write this book to the fact that he had the White House press secretary‘s job and he only rose to that position at a very young age because he was selected by the president and by other loyalists around him.
And he was selected largely because, I think—and Dan Bartlett may not admit this under the lights of the camera, but I think he was selected largely because they thought he would say nothing ever that would be harmful to the president. He certainly wasn‘t chosen to be a forthcoming or critical White House press secretary.
GREGORY: Yes, true enough. Ken Herman, you go way back here, what‘s your “Headline” on this?
KEN HERMAN, WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT, COX NEWSPAPERS: Who would have
thought it? I‘m with Jay. Short of Karl Rove or Karen Hughes or Dan Bartlett coming out with a book that strays from the Bush party line, this one may stand the test of time as the only one from among the Texas insiders that questions it from the perspective of someone who came on the wagon train from Texas with Bush.
As some Bush people told me today, they feel like they defended Scott when he was under fire, frankly, on questions of competence and whether he was serving the president well, and they feel deeply wounded by this. This is an administration in which loyalty is trait number one.
GREGORY: Are these credible claims given how surprising it is from Scott? Do we get the idea that he was seething all those years in the White House?
HERMAN: No. I get the feeling more of sort of a metamorphosis, maybe seething about how he feels like he was dumped in the grease on Rove and Scooter Libby. On Iraq, it may be more the perspective of time. I‘m not sure Scott wrote the book he was expecting to write and that he may have come around to what a lot of Americans seem to feel about the war now and joining that chorus.
GREGORY: Right. All right. Kelly O., out in L.A. today, you‘re covering McCain, as I mentioned on the top, your take on this book?
KELLY O‘DONNELL, NBC CONGRESSIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Well, David, I would have to say my “Headline” is throw the book at him. It didn‘t take long at all for the memoirs to become a campaign talking point. We‘re already seeing the Obama campaign trying to link this book to John McCain using the basic message.
Was the war sold because of deception and propaganda, a war John McCain supports? And Republicans are going to try very hard to say that it was McCain who stood up against the president to try to create distance. But the timing is not helpful for John McCain—David.
GREGORY: Yes. And you can just hear the left saying, and Barack Obama saying, look, his own press secretary said that it was sold under false pretenses, that it was propaganda and this is a guy that John McCain has stood so closely to over all this time.
Dana Milbank, your thought about all of this? You actually have a question in response to this book?
DANA MILBANK, NATIONAL POLITICAL REPORTER, THE WASHINGTON POST: Yes, my “Headline” is the question, and that is exactly how much is Laura going to get for her kiss and tell? I think we‘re up to—the clock is up to about two dozen of these kiss and tells by former administration insiders.
Now some of the obviously disgruntled like Mike “Brownie” Brown, or you‘ve got Paul O‘Neill or Larry Wilkerson from the State Department. David Kuo, George Tenet, but now we‘re getting, as the others have said, into the inner circle here. And this has to be particularly devastating to the president just because he prides so much on loyalty and Scott had that to such a great extent.
So I‘m wondering, I mean, you know, fortunately for the president, I believe Spot has already passed on, but Barney still has some very—he has been keeping a diary.
GREGORY: Right. And Barney was around for a lot more things than people realize. He was actually there in the big meetings.
All right. We‘re going to take a break here. Let me do a little housekeeping, tell you what we‘re going to do. We‘re going to keep talking about this book. At the half hour, I‘m actually go to report my lead piece for NBC “NIGHTLY NEWS” tonight. We‘re going to have a simulcast.
We‘re going to join NBC “NIGHTLY NEWS WITH BRIAN WILLIAMS” right at the half hour, so that will reset everything and you‘ll get an overview of this at the half hour.
Then we‘re going to get into some specifics in terms of what McClellan is writing about, about Iraq, about Valerie Plame and the CIA leak case. And we‘ll talk about the political impact.
When we come back after a break here, we‘ll talk about some of his views about Hurricane Katrina and the response to what he saw on the inside. The RACE comes right back after this.
GREGORY: We‘re back on the RACE. We‘re talking about Scott McClellan‘s new bombshell book, “What Happened.” He talks about Hurricane Katrina at one point and he‘s very critical. I want to show you something from the book and get the panel, all insiders who have covered this White House and know Scott McClellan well.
This is what he says about Katrina: “How did we screw up so badly?
The problem wasn‘t lack of information, the problem lay in our mindset. Our White House team had already weathered many disasters, from the hurricanes of the previous year all the way back to the unprecedented calamity of 9/11.
“As a result, we were probably a little numb. What, another tragedy? And perhaps a little complacent. We had been through this before. So we allowed our institutional response to go on autopilot rather than seizing the initiative and getting in front of what was happening on the ground in New Orleans, we let events control us. It was a costly blunder.”
He says it was a state of denial in the White House for that first week of the storm. And you remember this picture? This was the now notorious iconic flyover, Air Force One, over New Orleans, the president peering out at the damage from, you know, whatever it was, 15,000, 20,000 feet. The president came under a lot of criticism for not getting on the ground and visiting and seeing it firsthand.
Dana Milbank, we know now from the book, Scott McClellan says that he and Dan Bartlett thought that was a terrible idea, but it was Rove‘s idea to do the flyover, Rove‘s idea to have that picture taken. What do you make of it all?
MILBANK: Well, here‘s a case where Rove, like Scooter Libby, treated Scott fairly badly. So there‘s some bad blood to begin with there. I think it‘s also worth noting that of the many things that Dan disputed, that wasn‘t prominent among them.
Indeed, the whole discussion seems to be about his motives here and not really getting at the facts itself. So if you step back from this and say, everything he said about Katrina, well, that‘s obviously true. That‘s sort of just the accepted conventional wisdom at this point.
I don‘t think he‘s adding anything to it. What he‘s doing is he‘s validating the criticism so that the left wing or the 72 percent of the country that disagrees with the president right now could say, yes, even Scott McClellan says so.
GREGORY: But, you know, Ken, there‘s an aspect, this is Hurricane Katrina, but in general his impressions of Bush, somebody who lacked inquisitiveness, who wouldn‘t—who wasn‘t very reflective, who didn‘t like to revisit a decision once it had been made, those were impressions that Scott McClellan can very credibly make. He has been around him long enough. How damaging are they?
HERMAN: It‘s damaging because to some extent, as a lot of things in the book does, it echoes and certifies what has been said elsewhere. The bookstores of America are replete with books—anti-Bush books, most of them from people who were critics of him to begin with.
But adding Scott‘s voice to that is news and adds some certification for that. To a large extent, with Katrina, with the war, with the Rove-Plame-Wilson-Libby, Scott has come around to what a lot of Americans think, and coming around to what a lot of Americans think about a president whose approval rating now sounds like the low end of a comfortable humidity is not surprising.
GREGORY: All right. I‘ve got to get another break in here, we‘re going to come back at the half hour, I‘m going to do my lead story, report the lead story for “NIGHTLY NEWS.” We‘ll do that.
Then we‘ll talk about McClellan‘s views on the war in Iraq, what he saw on the inside, the CIA leak case, and the political impact on all of this. So a very busy back half. The RACE comes right back after this.
GREGORY: Welcome to RACE FOR THE WHITE HOUSE. I‘m David Gregory. Welcome back to the back half. Now, a little something different. We‘re going to take a pause here for a me to report the lead story tonight on “NBC Nightly News” with Brian Williams about this new book, “What Happened,” by Scott McClellan, the shot heard around Washington. Everybody‘s talking about it. We‘ll give you an overview to that. Then we‘ll come back with panel about talk about it. We‘ll talk about Iraq. We‘ll talk about the CIA leak case.
So now we‘re going to join “NBC Nightly News.”
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: From NBC News world headquarters in New York, this is “NBC Nightly News” with Brian Williams.
BRIAN WILLIAMS, NBC NEWS ANCHOR: Good evening, for years he was the public face of the White House. Every day there in the briefing room, at times under withering verbal fire from an aggressive press corps. Scott McClellan seemed to all who watched like a true believer, always a stalwart defender of the president. Until now.
He‘s written a new book that questions the very credibility of the Bush administration, including the underpinnings of a costly war in Iraq. It also raises profound questions about the character, leadership and management style of the president. The book starts off with a quote, the truth shall set you free.
Today, the author learned that a tell-all book can also set off a huge counter attack. Our own David Gregory was chief White House correspondent during the years covered in the book. In fact, he still is and he starts off our coverage tonight. And David, this became quite a story today.
GREGORY: It certainly did. Good evening, Brian. Aides say tonight that the president is puzzled, saddened and disappointed by this book, a scathing memoir by a former member of the inner circle who never before let on that he held such strong views.
GREGORY (voice-over): When Scott McClellan resigned two years ago, it was an emotional moment for both president and press secretary.
SCOTT MCCLELLAN, FORMER PRESS SECRETARY: I have given it my all, sir, and I‘ve given you my all.
GEORGE W. BUSH, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: One of these days, he and are going to rocking in chairs in Texas, talking about the good old days of his time as the press secretary.
GREGORY: What a difference a memoir makes. The book, “What Happened, Inside the Bush White House and Washington‘s Culture of Deception,” was the shot heard round the Washington today. The mild mannered McClellan, a Bush loyalist from the Texas days, whose mother was a Texas Republican pol, whose brother also served the president, is unsparing.
He writes of the president that he has a, quote, lack of inquisitiveness and a detrimental resistance to reflection. McClellan goes on to explain why he thinks the president could not admit a mistake, writing, “Bush was not one to look back once a decision was made. Rather than suffer any sense of guilt and anguish, Bush chose not to go down the road of self doubt.”
McClellan blames the president and the administration for hyping the case for war in Iraq, relying on, quote, propaganda, and, quote, shading the truth. He calls the war itself a strategic blunder, one the media, he argues, let the White House get away with.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Can I ask you a few questions about the book?
GREGORY: McClellan didn‘t comment today about the book outside his Virginia home, but a journalist who has chronicled the Bush White House says the criticism is out of character, leaving some to question whether the thoughts are his own.
ROBERT DRAPER, AUTHOR, “DEAD CERTAIN”: These are sort of observations of McClellan‘s, and it does maybe give rise to, or add fuel to the charge that maybe the publisher sort of pushed him to do this.
GREGORY: Why is he doing this? Insiders say the CIA leak case played a huge role. McClellan writes that he was misled into believing that senior advisor Karl Rove and Scooter Libby, then chief of staff to the vice president, played no role in revealing the identity of CIA operative Valerie Plame.
MCCLELLAN: They‘re good individuals. They are important members of our White House team. And that‘s why I spoke with them, so that I could come back to you and say that they were not involved.
GREGORY: He writes now that he believes the president was deceived as well. “Top White House officials who knew the truth,” McClellan writes, “including Rove, Libby and possibly Vice President Cheney, allowed me, even encouraged me to repeat a lie.”
McClellan also writes that it was Rove who advocated the highly criticized Air Force One flyover of New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina. McClellan insists he disagreed, adding the White House spent the first week after the storm in a, quote, state of denial. The president‘s spokeswoman called McClellan disgruntled today. Former counsel to the president Dan Bartlett said it was inappropriate to write this kind of book with the president still in office.
DAN BARTLETT, FMR COUNSELOR TO PRESIDENT BUSH: I think it would be more credible if there was the same Scott we‘re hearing now was one that we knew inside the White House. If Scott was concerned about the deliberations going on inside the White House, why wouldn‘t he tell anybody?
(END VIDEO CLIP)
GREGORY: That‘s the criticism from Bush insiders today; if he felt that way, why didn‘t he resign? Why did he stay and advocate for those same policies all the while? That criticism will intensify about why he stayed, about his motive. But it will not diminish the impact of a stinging rebuke of the president and his policies from somebody on the inside. Brian?
WILLIAMS: David Gregory in his MSNBC studios in Washington starting off our coverage tonight. David, thanks.
GREGORY: And we are back on RACE FOR THE WHITE HOUSE here on MSNBC. That‘s the setup piece for our discussion here, as we talk in depth now about what happened, Scott McClellan‘s bombshell new book inside the White House and Washington‘s culture of deception.
We want to talk now about the Iraq war and the lengths that McClellan claims the administration went to sell it to the American people, all of which led him to conclude the following: “what I do know is that the war should only be waged when absolutely necessary and the Iraq war was not necessary.” Kelly, these are strong words from Scott McClellan.
O‘DONNELL: Well, David, I think what is so striking here is something that we saw in your piece, and that was the sadness that McClellan felt on that day when he walked out from the Oval Office with the president. He did not want to leave that job. He felt pushed out and I think what was very known to us at the time were his comments from the earlier segment about Katrina, that numbness. That was something that was sort of discussed in the back offices in the press section of the White House. That was not a surprise.
This is a surprise, because McClellan really showed great message discipline, that sort of term that was so important in the Bush White House to have, sometimes it would boil down to just a few words, stay the course. When they stand up, we‘ll stand down, those kinds of terms. He was really strong about that. And the frustration we felt when we couldn‘t get him to move off those talking points during briefings and we really didn‘t have a sense that he was not in lock step with the president on something as important as the war.
GREGORY: The criticism that he levels about the president and the policy of war, it relied on propaganda, that there was shading of the truth, essentially that they were hyping the war. The president was believing his own spin. And this, let‘s show this to our viewers: “Bush‘s way of managing the problems in Iraq was proving inadequate to the task,” McClellan writes. “He received regular updates and held frequent meetings as he sought to improve the situation through personal persuasion and pressure on Iraqi leaders. But he was insulated from the reality of events on the ground, and consequentially began failing to trap—falling into the trap of believing his own spin.” Reaction?
CARNEY: I think what Scott is describing there is the White House bubble. And staffers exist within it and so does the president. I think what Ken mentioned earlier is true, that Scott McClellan came to these revelations after he left the White House, largely. I think that‘s what we‘ll learn tomorrow when we hear from him. And I think it‘s apparent in the book. And it answers some of the questions that Dan Bartlett and other loyalists have been asking; if he felt this way—
GREGORY: If he felt this way, why did he stick around?
CARNEY: Why didn‘t he resign or why didn‘t he raise those concerns internally. I think what McClellan is likely to say is that at the time I was insulated. I wasn‘t as aware as I am now about all these problems. One thing about the propaganda issue, I mean, Bartlett and others will contest this, but of course they sold the war as if they were selling, you know, a bar of soap. Remember the famous interview that Andy Card, then the White House chief of staff, gave, where he talked about rolling out a product when he talked about, you know, selling the country on the need to go to war. So I don‘t think it‘s going to be that easy to contest that assertion either.
GREGORY: Dana, let me get to this point, which is something that Dan brought up at the top that I thought about today, which is he‘s critical of the war, of the case for war. This has power because he was an insider, the fact that he validates a lot of the criticism on the outside. But Bartlett made the point at the top of the hour that, look, this guy wasn‘t in a position to draw these conclusions based on deliberations that he was privy to, or to kind of divine motives or make stark claims about what the motives were for going to war. He didn‘t have that angle to see all of this, because he wasn‘t formulating the policies. Does that matter?
MILBANK: It‘s particularly interesting to hear that because when he was the press secretary, we were always hearing from Dan and others about how he was in all of these meetings. So that‘s how we could know that we were in fact getting the correct information. But, look, he has a long history. His family has a long history with the president that goes well before his time in the White House. So he knows the president on a very personal level.
The other question is, why didn‘t he speak out earlier? It‘s probably because of this very powerful sense of loyalty that he felt and he was extremely anguished. There was one moment that keeps coming back to me in the briefings when we knew that we had told us bad information about Valerie Plame. And he just kept saying, you know me. And a lot of us were saying that doesn‘t do you any good. Now, we‘re seeing what he meant by that.
GREGORY: Let me get to this. I think we have an exchange. After there was no WMD found in February of 2004, Bush was interviewed, the president was interviewed by Tim Russert on “Meet the Press.” If we have this, I want to give our folks a chance to get this ready. This is the exchange and then McClellan writes about it. Watch.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
TIM RUSSERT, “MEET THE PRESS”: In light of not finding weapons of mass destruction, do you believe the war in Iraq is a war of choice or a war of necessity?
BUSH: I think that‘s an interesting question. Please elaborate on that a little bit. A war of choice or a war of necessity? It‘s a war of necessity. We—in my judgment, we had no choice when we looked at the intelligence I looked at, that said the man was a threat.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
GREGORY: This is what McClellan said after the interview that said the president was sort of puzzled by the question, as he was on the air with Tim. McClellan writes the following, “I remember talking to the president about this question. Following the interview, he seemed puzzled and asked me what Russert was getting at with the question. This in turn puzzled me. Surely this distinction between a necessary, unavoidable war and a war that the United States could have avoided by chose to wage was an obvious one that Bush must have thought about in the months before the invasion. Evidently, it wasn‘t obvious to the president. Nor did his National Security team make sure it was. He set the policy early on and then his team focused its attention on how to sell it.”
The point being, Kelly, there wasn‘t any reflection about this. The decision was made and it was sort of automatons. Now just go sell the thing. Let‘s not constantly reassess. That‘s the charge he‘s leveling here.
O‘DONNELL: I think even the president to a certain degree would acknowledge he‘s not into hand wringing. He doesn‘t suffer over his decisions. Obviously, now with the length of the war and the terrible costs, he feels the pain that American families and military families have felt. But in terms of what he felt about his decision, he really only moves in one direction, it appears, from all we have observed and the people we have talked to.
So what struck me about this is that you could see how the president appeared puzzled in the question from Tim. He sort of gave an answer where you could almost see the gears moving. And then for Scott to give us that behind the scenes moment, it really was revealing that as we were all talking about sort of re-litigating the war, which the White House always pushed backed on, never wanted to do that, that perhaps the president just wasn‘t turning back, and was simply looking at the next set of decisions and not having that sense of anguish that so many other people were feeling.
GREGORY: Got to take a quick break here. I want to talk about his criticism of the press in the run up to the war, and I also want to talk about his feelings about the CIA leak case, which is I think what gets us closest to why he wrote this book and why he feels the way he does, evidently. We‘ll talk about the book “What Happened” by Scott McClellan when THE RACE returns right after this.
GREGORY: We‘re back on THE RACE, talking about the new book from Scott McClellan. Now turning to what happened inside the Bush White House during the CIA leak investigation. The former White House press secretary now taking aim at Karl Rove and Scooter Libby for knowingly misleading him as he stood before the White House press corps, denying their involvement. Here‘s my exchange with McClellan on Rove and Libby‘s hand in blowing the cover on Valerie Plame. Listen.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
GREGORY: Scott, you have said that you personally went to Scooter Libby, Karl Rove and Elliott Abrams to ask them if they were the leakers. Is that what happened? Why did you do that and can you describe the conversations you had with them?
MCCLELLAN: Unfortunately in Washington, D.C., at a time like this, there are a lot of rumors and innuendo. They‘re unsubstantiated accusations that are made. And that‘s exactly what happened in the case of these three individuals. They‘re good individuals. They‘re important members of our White House team and that‘s why I spoke with them so that I could come back to you and say that they were not involved.
I had no doubt of that in the beginning, but I like to check my information to make sure it‘s accurate before I report back to you. And that‘s exactly what I did.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
GREGORY: Back with us now, Kelly O‘Donnell, Dana Milbank, Jay Carney, and Ken Herman. Ken, let me start with you on this point. That‘s what he told us in the briefing room, didn‘t turn out to be right?
HERMAN: No, and to the extent that it didn‘t, that‘s how Scott McClellan indeed became a disgruntled former employee, if he indeed he is in that category. Throughout the book, he talks about this. I believe it was on the day he resigned, I sat with him in his office just talking about what he was going to do next and whether he was going to write a book. And he kept saying there was a story to tell and he would tell it someday. And to me he was clearly talking about this. And later on, on the record, he talked about this and I wrote about it months ago, about how he felt Rove and Libby misled him, and he believe misled the president. And he doesn‘t blame the president for that. He sort of sees the president as a victim in that also.
GREGORY: Let me read you something that he writes in the book. Now, he doesn‘t blame the president for deceiving him. He thinks the president was deceived. And this is what he writes in the book: “the president, he too has been deceived, and therefore became unwittingly involved in deceiving me. But the top White House officials who knew the truth, including Rove, Libby and possibly Vice President Cheney, allowed me, even encouraged me to repeat a lie.”
And jay, you know, I think it‘s worth pointing out—there‘s a lot of people who maybe watching this, who watch what happens when the press corps covers the White House. Maybe they don‘t like Washington, maybe they don‘t like politics. One thing is certain, whether you‘re a Republican or a Democrat, when you are a press secretary, you not only feel loyalty to the president, but you feel loyalty to the press, and your credibility matters, that you are believed matters in your public standing.
Scott did feel wounded by this. Any press secretary feels that their credibility is really all they have got.
CARNEY: David, you‘re exactly right. I remember speaking with Mike McCurry, a former press secretary to President Bill Clinton about what role the press secretary serves. The press secretary‘s office is exactly equidistant the Oval Office and the briefing room. And that‘s symbolic of sort of the two masters that the press secretary is supposed to have. He‘s a servant both of the president and of the public and the truth, as represented by the conveyors of that through the media in the press.
I know, as Ken spoke about recently too, I had lunch with Scott towards the end of his tenure. This came up. Although he was careful in what he said at the time, he was definitely upset about how he felt he was misled and I would not have expected this book. But you could tell that he took the damage to his reputation quite seriously.
GREGORY: Ken, what do we know now from the inside, from this story that he‘s telling about the back story of trying to nail down the truth about what Karl Rove and Scooter Libby did. What did Scott do?
HERMAN: We know he wasn‘t allowed to do much. He says in the book that after he had given his comments about Rove, exonerating him and asking Rove about it, one Saturday morning, he was at his apartment down town and he got a call from then chief of staff Andy Card, who said the president and the vice president had spoken, and they wanted Scott to give the same comments about Scooter Libby, that he was not involved.
It‘s a very interesting passage in the book, and there are many, in which he talks about getting in touch with Libby that day to get those assurances personally from him. That day, Libby was in Jackson Hole, Wyoming with the vice president, assured Scott that he had nothing to do with it. Scott went forward with that information, which turned out to be wrong and damaged Scott deeply.
GREGORY: Let me put something up, this is the full screen about Rove‘s categorical denial in the control room: “the second time I checked with Rove was on Saturday September 27, 2003. I asked Karl an unambiguous, unqualified catch all question, were you involved in this in any way. I was clearly referring to the leaking of Valerie Plame‘s identity, information that was believed to be classified to any reporter. Karl replied categorically, no, look, I didn‘t even know about his wife.”
I should say, Karl Rove has said publicly that he did not mislead Scott. There‘s also ongoing litigation in a civil context by Joe Wilson and Valerie Plame. So Karl is not going to be more expansive about this. Nevertheless, Kelly, it gives you some insight. This guy‘s taken a lot of heat from the press core, from all of us, asking these questions. He‘s trying to track it down. Just take 10 seconds to respond to that.
O‘DONNELL: I think that Scott knew that his credibility was damaged and really toward the end of his tenure. Remember the vice president‘s shooting incident? Again, McClellan felt very misled by the vice president‘s office, because there was a big delay in reporting the facts of that. Toward the end of his tenure, he began to see that he wasn‘t getting all the information he needed.
GREGORY: Look, the bottom line here is that George Bush didn‘t want a very strong press secretary. We‘ll take a break and come back.
GREGORY: We‘re back an THE RACE with our time moments here, going to talk about the impact on the 2008 race. First, press criticism from Scott McClellan. Here‘s what he writes in the book: “if anything the national press corps was probably too deferential to the White House and to the administration regarding the most important decision facing the nation during my years in Washington, the choice of whether to go to war in Iraq. The administration did little to convey the nuances to the people. The press should have picked up the slack, but largely failed to do so because their focus was elsewhere, on covering the march to war, instead of the necessity of war.”
Dana, I get a little bit defensive about this, my wife tells me, but I try not to. I try to be reasonable about all this, but I do disagree. It‘s like this Grisham novel, “Run Away Jury,” where this guy penetrates the jury just to throw the verdict. You have this picture of this guy who‘s against the war, against Bush. He‘s working on the inside, and he keeps hoping the press will do its job and take him down.
MILBANK: Stop me before I lie again, right? But, look, it‘s the easiest thing in America to do is to blame things on the press. So that was a freebie for him. Dan Bartlett, nobody will refute him on this point. And of course he‘s right. We didn‘t do as much as we could have and the fact of the matter is we did raise these questions. And I mean I guess what Scott‘s just saying in a backwards way there is they were just doing a particularly good job of keeping the facts out of the public domain.
GREGORY: Jay Carney, the argument there is that we should have engaged in the debate about the necessity of war, that we should have created—that we the press should have created the debate for the American people about the necessity for war?
CARNEY: And that we should have been more, I guess, aggressive in challenging the White House‘s march to war and their assertions that war was necessary. And I have to accept that criticism. I think in retrospect, especially, and I think a lot of this for Scott McClellan is in retrospect—I don‘t think he held these opinions at the time. But in retrospect, there‘s some legitimacy to that. And I wouldn‘t argue with that. I think we all in the media, not individually but collectively, share some of the blame for that.
At the time, we were all also dealing with the same intelligence information that was hard to challenge, because it was coming from one place. I think that Scott is looking for partners in making this argument that he‘s making in the book. He‘s looking for complicity in not challenging the president at the time, not challenging his colleagues. So he‘s sharing the blame a little bit with the media, which is I think fair enough.
GREGORY: Ken, let me ask you take this on. We‘ll talk about the impact on the race. Here‘s what the Obama camp put out as a reaction on paper today: “it‘s not news that this administration engaged in spin and deception to lead us into a war that should have never been authorized, should never have been waged. The only question now is do we continue George Bush‘s failed policies or do we change it? McCain is promising four more years of the exact same policy in Iraq.”
It goes on and on and on to the rest of his attack that we‘re familiar with. What does McClellan coming out now do to the campaign?
HERMAN: Out fuels what Democrats want to talk about to a large extent, about what this White House did, how it did it, why it did it. Scott‘s book fuels all of that. Everything gets dragged into this campaign. I think we‘re a few days away from the big debate about the infield fly rule and its impact on America. So why shouldn‘t something like this be dragged into it. I think we‘ll see it for many days to come.
GREGORY: So Kelly, on the other side, on the Republican side, in the McCain camp, a book like this comes out and do they say, this is the last thing we need or as Rumsfeld would say, this is not helpful?
O‘DONNELL: Not helpful and it‘s sort of ironic. It‘s the unintended consequences of the soul searching that McClellan has put on paper. Here he is a lifelong Republican, a family of Republicans. And he‘s in effect helping the Obama campaign with one of their talking points. The folks around McCain say they don‘t think there will be an impact. I‘m sure they hope people don‘t read it. And they‘re going to try to separate their candidate from the president as much as possible.
But talking about troubles related to the war is not helpful to John McCain.
GREGORY: I‘ve got to leave it there. Thanks so much to the panel of insiders here. Quick programming note, be sure to tune in to “COUNTDOWN” with Keith Olbermann tomorrow night, 8:00 pm Eastern, right here on MSNBC. Keith will have a conversation with Scott McClellan. That does it for THE RACE for tonight. Thanks for watching. Have a great night.
THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.