Presidential adviser Karen Hughes, described by Time Magazine as “the most powerful woman ever to serve in a White House,” chats with MSNBC.com about what it was like to be senior counselor to the president on September 11th, 2001 and speaks generally on how the White House and the President handles crisis situations including the nation’s newly increased terror alert status. Hughes took questions from chatters over the phone from the White House. Chat producer Will Femia moderates.
MSNBC-Will Femia: Welcome Ms. Hughes. You’re just coming from meeting with the President? How’s he doing?
Karen Hughes: I am. He’s having a very busy day as you might imagine -it’s a busy week. He is meeting on discussing Medicare and prescription drugs and that important issue. Then he’s talking about a citizenship initiative. Then we’re going to be doing some speech preparation for his speeches tomorrow for the 9/11 events at the Pentagon and his address to the nation tomorrow night and then we’ll be going over his speech to the United Nations on Thursday.
MSNBC-Will Femia: Before we begin, could you talk a little about how the new arrangement is working with you and President Bush. Do you speak often and regularly?
Karen Hughes: Thank you for asking. I feel very blessed that I have been able to do the right thing for my family and continue to be involved with the President. I have traveled with him, I believe four different times in the last month. I made a trip to Iowa, Wisconsin, South Dakota… I also went on a trip to California, Oregon, and New Mexico. I’m here all this week, I spent the weekend with him at Camp David, I’m going with him to New York for the United Nations meeting. I’ve been in up here in Washington since last Friday.
So I’m spending a great deal of time with the president, with my colleagues at the White House. I do talk to the President regularly, pretty much most business days. Last week on Tuesday and Wednesday I was on the phone almost all day long with colleagues at the White House. So I’m staying very involved, and I’m also very happy to report that my family is enjoying being home. My son is glad to be back with his friends and my husband is working at our church and enjoying that very much.
MSNBC-Will Femia: We’ve billed this chat as remembering 9/11, but if we could, I’d like to take some questions on the new alert status...
Question from Frank: What does today’s new alert mean for the Presidnet? Does he know stuff like this in advance or are they redrafting his plans as we speak?
MSNBC-Will Femia: How far in advance is he notified about something like this?
Karen Hughes: He is briefed every day, in some cases several times a day about the status of threats against the country. That’s how he starts his morning. In this case I understand he had an additional meeting last night to evaluate the nature of the threats that our intelligence analysts were seeing. The judgment was that the level of threat activity was such that the responsible thing to do was to issue the alert that they issued today, which means the government will increase protections.
We will increase surveillance at key buildings. We will increase security in some locations, obviously we’re not going to disclose those because we don’t want to tell our enemies what we’re doing. But the people should be alert but know that the government is on very high alert and is strengthening our protections and doing everything we possibly can to try to protect our citizens both here at home and abroad.
Question from yaz: I was wondering if you could ask the question “Who decided where the President went once he got aboard Air Force One? Who decides if he stays in the air or if he lands somewhere? Does the President decide that or does his security force decide it?
MSNBC-Will Femia: And can we broaden that to things like heightened alert days?
Karen Hughes: On September 11th, when the President boarded the plane I thought he was coming back to Washington. And we all thought the President wanted to come back to Washington and that was his intention. While he was in the air we reviewed what we thought at the time was a threat against the plane. It later turned out the threat was not as credible as we thought at the time, but we thought at the time it was a very credible threat.
The Vice President, the National Security Advisor, and the Secret Service all recommended that the President not return to Washington because obviously when he comes to Washington it’s fairly common knowledge where the plane lands. So in that case they all made the recommendation and the President concurred.
I have also, though, witnessed times when the Secret Service, a couple of days after the initial attack, on Thursday, September 13th, we came back from visiting some burn victims who had been burned when the plane hit the Pentagon and the Secret Service was waiting for the President outside the Oval Office and he recommended that he leave the White House, they felt another attack might be imminent, and he refused. He felt that he was here, that the American people want to see him here, and he wasn’t going to leave.
So that was his call that day. Obviously he is the commander in chief. He also has a responsibility to this country on a day like September 11th when we were being attacked, had something happened to the President, it would have been a very, very difficult moment for the country, so he tries to weigh the information and the recommendation and make the appropriate decision.
MSNBC-Will Femia: You mentioned that the American people wanted to see him...
Question from Percy Bell: How was the decision made as to when the President would address the nation on 9/11? Did you have a time in your mind that told when you’d better make contact with the American people to keep them assured?
Karen Hughes: He and I talked that afternoon and he asked my recommendation. I recommended that he come back to Washington and deliver a prime time address. I felt that the American people wanted to see him at the White House. He agreed, that was his feeling. He wanted to come back all day, in fact, but was again trying to do the responsible thing and make sure that he didn’t do something that would cause the events of September 11th to be even worse than they already were.
He made the decision to come back that afternoon. I think there were still others who were recommending that he not come back. Obviously everybody has a different role in the process. The role of the Secret Service is to do everything in their power to protect him and protect his life and the institution of the presidency, so they are always, I think, going to air on the side of caution. The President has other responsibilities as well and that evening felt it was important that he come back to the White House and address the nation from the Oval Office which he did.
MSNBC-Will Femia: I’m curious to know how the president reacted to the attacks when the cameras weren’t rolling. Was he furious and smashing furniture and cursing? Did he have to be talked out of simply going to war against all of the Arab world at first? I ask this knowing very well how extremely angry I was (am) about the attacks. Surely the President didn’t stay calm through the whole thing.
Karen Hughes: The President was exactly the same way in private that he was in public. All of us on the staff feel he really carried us through. He was strong, he was resolute, he knew instantly that we were at war. He said that. I was not in Florida -September 10th, today, is my wedding anniversary, so I stayed in Washington. He traveled to Florida on September 10th and I had stayed in Washington to spend the evening with my husband.
MSNBC-Will Femia: ug. Happy anniversary.
Karen Hughes: So I was not with him that morning. I later came into the White House and joined the Vice President here for much of that day. But my deputy at the time, Dan Bartlett, was with him and I remember Dan telling me at one point, “Karen, the president is just incredible. He was focused, he was making decisions, he was calm. I remember a time DC to spend the evening with my husband, so I was not with him that morning.
I remember a time, in the early days as you recall, every day there were new threats and we didn’t know whether another attack could happen any moment. I remember at one point being concerned about him as my boss and long time friend and I walked into the Oval Office thinking if he wanted to vent or unwind he could do that with me and I said, “How are you Mr. President?”
And he looked at me and he pointed his finger on the desk and he said, “I have never been more clear eyed about what I have to do.” And that strength and sheer will and determination just, I feel, again, just carried all of us through.
Question from Donna Catland: I am asking about Bush pre-9/11 and how much had to change because of the attacks. How did you have to re-do the platform after that?
Karen Hughes: Clearly our national security team had been concerned about terrorism from the very beginning days of our administration. We had had the attack on the USS Cole during the Clinton administration. We had had previous attacks. Our National Security team, in fact, was in the midst of working on, at the President’s request, some proposals for how to deal with al-Qaida at the time of the attacks. They’d spent the summer developing a strategy because when the President traveled to Italy for one of the World Conferences in July there were a great deal of threats around that event. So he, at that point, said we need to deal with this on a comprehensive basis, this is a large threat. So our national security team had been focused and working on this from the very beginning.
This obviously was a number of years in the making. A lot of these terrorists were trained in the camps in Afghanistan 10 and 15 years ago. This is something that our national security team has been concerned about. Those of us not on the National Security Council at the White House —when we came last Fall, I think the focus was really on the Fall budget debate. If you look back at the media stories that preceded the attacks, they were focused on the “looming showdown on the budget.” It’s ironic to look back because the budget later passed with very little debate because obviously the events of September 11th totally overshadowed any budget debate, and our country both Republicans and Democrats united to address the threat to our country.
The President has always since the first day in office started his day with an intelligence briefing. Clearly in the aftermath of September 11th, that has taken renewed emphasis, but that is something he did before September 11th, and it’s something he still does every day.
Question from Jack: Does the Administration lack a true dialectical debate process?
MSNBC-Will Femia: That’s a bit of a loaded question, but can you talk about the debate within the administration over what steps to take?
Karen Hughes: I think there’s a big misperception about that. Because we all respect the President a great deal and respect each other a great deal, the administration is viewed as disciplined, which it is. We don’t view it as our place to leak the contents of secret meetings that could risk people’s lives who are intelligence agents or military personnel, but that does not mean we don’t have vigorous and healthy debate within the administration.
In fact, I kept, when I was here, a piece of unvarnished wood on my desk to remind me what the President has always told me he wants from his staff is our unvarnished opinions. And he gets those.
And he also seeks opinions from a wide range of people. He has a very open management style. He has time on his schedule when members of the senior staff can stop in and talk with him. You don’t have to go through a central funnel.
Obviously we try to schedule his time wisely and use his time to good purpose, but there are a number of us who can walk into his office at any time and tell him we’re concerned about things. I pick up the phone and call him when I see something of concern. The Vice President comes in and talks to him frequently. Condi Rice talks to him frequently. All our cabinet secretaries have the ability to come talk with him. Many members of our senior staff…
He has a wide circle of friends who he has known for years who I think lend perspective and give him a feel that keeps him from being insulated in the White House. He has family that visits frequently, his brothers and sister. So the president gets a wide variety of input from a lot of different people.
The other thing is that he meets real regularly with Congress, he meets with… y’know, he has meeting in the White House with an incredible array of people from leaders of different faiths to teachers to police and firemen to business leaders to small business owners, and so he hears from all them directly how policy affects their lives and he gets questions from them. So I think there’s both a great and healthy debate and a lot of access to information and input.
A lot of people may not realize that every night he is delivered a very thick briefing book about the next day’s activities. And the next day I can always tell that he’s spent a great deal of time with it because he asks questions that you would only find in that book about things that he has read in that book that have a lot of details, so all the meetings he has today, he would have read about last night, in detail, some of the policy discussions and proposals that he is considering today.
MSNBC-Will Femia: This one goes for both 9/11 and today’s terror alert...
Question from Karen Nelson: Karen, as an American I am afraid of another terrorist attack like 911. Does being “in-the-know” make you more afraid or less afraid? Is that part of why you left DC?
Karen Hughes: No, that had nothing to do with my leaving Washington. My decision to move home to Texas was exactly what I said it was at the time. I felt it was important for my family to be in Texas. We wanted to live there. We have friends there. I wanted my son to have the opportunity to spend his high school years in a place we felt was home. Obviously I had to face any fears that I had when I drove back to the White House the morning of September 11th after the attacks. Everyone else was leaving the city and I was driving back in. In those days after September 11th obviously that was a time when everyone felt some anxiety.
I am a person of faith. I believe that God will not put anything before us that we can not with his help handle. I think many of us had to rely on this faith during those very difficult days. Unfortunately these alerts are a new fact of life in our country. When the government is receiving information that they feel raises the level of threat, I think it’s responsible for government to let our people and all our responders and our emergency personnel know that. That’s the decision they had to make today.
To me it says that we are reminding those charged with protecting us that the threat is high right now and that means we will be posting additional security in key places and redoubling our efforts to prevent another attack. I understand that for citizens we’re not accustomed to this, but unfortunately it is a new reality and I think people should be glad to know that their government is responding to the level of threat and reacting as best we can to try to protect our citizens.
Question from AndyDem: Mrs. Hughes, Do you feel that the president might be perceived as exploiting 9/11 and Iraq if he does not address the domestic issues more than he has?
Question from Joan: Do you see a difference between making the case against Iraq to the American people and making it to the UN or other countries?
Karen Hughes: We frequently do have to consider different audiences when we prepare the President’s remarks for different venues. For example the speech that he will give Thursday to the United Nations is a different speech than he would give before the United States Congress or the American people about the threat posed by Saddam Hussein.
In going to the United Nations, the President is calling on the United Nations to really live up to its founding purpose which was to help keep security and peace. The Security Council was formed to help keep security in the world. The President will be reminding the United Nations that Saddam Hussein has failed to live up to the obligations he made to the world and that that is a threat to the world.
It’s quite a long litany of United Nations actions that Saddam Hussein has ignored or defied and we are a member of the United Nations, we want the United Nations to be strong, we want the United Nations to help provide security. So the President will be calling on the United Nations to enforce its intent of disarming Saddam Hussein.
I think that speech is uniquely an address to the body of the United Nations about its purpose. Obviously we hope that Saddam Hussein will prove that he will disarm and prove that he is no longer seeking weapons of mass destruction. Unfortunately, in the past and perhaps now, that has proven to be a hope against all the evidence. In the past he has misled the world about the status of his weapons programs. This is a serious threat to peace and the President will respond appropriately, just as he did in Afghanistan.
Earlier in this chat you asked about how the President felt and how you were angry in the days after 9/11. You will recall the President was very patient. We went through a very patient and deliberative process, identifying who was responsible for the attacks, of identifying the country that was harboring those who were responsible, of making a series of demands on the leaders of that country, and only after they failed to comply, only after the goal of being able to stop the camps and the training of terrorists in Afghanistan did the president choose to use a military option. He did that on a very deliberative basis. We are a country that has never welcome to the prospect of going to war but we’ve never walked away from our responsibility either. I am privileged to be able to watch the president make these very difficult decisions and I have every confidence that he will do so thoughtfully, and deliberately and only with the greatest care. And I will be very comfortable with whatever decision he makes because I am privileged to watch the way he goes through this process.
Question from cjb: Karen: I believe I read somewhere that you will be participate in President Bush’s 2004 campaign. If this is true, will you be returning to Washington during this time? Thanks.
Karen Hughes: If he decides to seek re-election, I will be his first and loudest supporter. We haven’t even talked about returning to Washington, I expect that my family will continue to live in Texas. In the past I have traveled with the president during his campaigns and I told him if he wants me on that plane from Labor Day to Election Day, I’ll be there.
MSNBC-Will Femia: Thank you very much for taking this time out for us today.
Karen Hughes: Thank you very much. I know today with the new threat alert that people have a lot of questions. There are some answers. You can find out more about the national threat system by logging into WhiteHouse.gov.
Question from RMo: Are we supposed to fly our flags at half staff tomorrow?
Karen Hughes: Yes, tomorrow is a day to fly the flag at half staff.
MSNBC-Will Femia: Thanks very much, I really appreciate your time.