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White House Briefing: Dan Froomkin

Bush Goes Off Message

By Dan Froomkin
Special to washingtonpost.com
Friday, August 13, 2004; 12:11 PM

Larry King is not exactly a bare-knuckled interviewer. But in between the softballs from CNN's affable host and the scripted sound bytes from the president, King nevertheless elicited several new assertions from the president.

Here's the full transcript.

The Seven Minutes

John F. Harris and Dan Balz write in The Washington Post: "President Bush defended himself from Democratic nominee John F. Kerry's criticism that Bush reacted passively for several minutes after learning that the nation was under terrorist attack on Sept. 11, 2001."

We'd never heard an explanation directly from Bush before.

Here's the back and forth:

"KING: John Kerry, your opponent, has said at the convention: Had I been reading to children and had my top aide whisper in my ear, 'America's under attack,' I would have told those kids very nicely and politely, the president of the United States has something he needs to attend to. And there's a film showing you sitting. What was going -- let's explain this, so we hear it from the other side.

"G. BUSH: Well, I had just been told by Andrew Card that America was under attack. And I was collecting my thoughts. And I was sitting with a bunch of young kids, and I made the decision there that we would let this part of the program finish, and then I would calmly stand up and thank the teacher and thank the children and go take care of business.

"And I think what's important is how I reacted when I realized America was under attack. It didn't take me long to figure out we were at war. It didn't take me long to develop a plan that we would go after Al Qaeda. We went into action very quickly.

"KING: So you think the criticism was unwarranted?

"G. BUSH: Oh, I think it's easy to second-guess a moment.

"KING: What was going. . . .

"G. BUSH: What is relevant is whether or not I understand and understood then the stakes. And I recognized that we were at war. And I made a determination that we would do everything we could to bring those killers to justice and to protect the American people. That is my most solemn duty.

"KING: Wasn't that the hardest seven minutes of your life?

"G. BUSH: Well, there's been a lot of hard moments in my life.

"KING: But at that moment, to hear that news. . . .

"G. BUSH: Yes, it was -- trying to understand exactly what it meant. But there have been a lot of hard moments."

Refuses to Condemn Anti-Kerry Ads

Pete Yost writes for the Associated Press: "President Bush is refusing to condemn an ad that criticizes rival John Kerry's Vietnam war record, even though the president's campaign partner this week, Sen. John McCain, urged the White House to do so.

" 'I haven't seen the ad, but what I do condemn is these regulated, soft-money expenditures' by outside groups that have filled the airwaves with attacks on both candidates, the president said Thursday night on CNN's 'Larry King Live.' "

Are You Better Off Now?

CNN leads this way: "President Bush said Thursday that America is 'absolutely' better off today than it was four years ago -- on both the national security and domestic fronts."

No Timetable for Withdrawal

David L. Greene writes in the Baltimore Sun: "Keeping up his effort to portray Sen. John Kerry as ill-suited for wartime leadership, President Bush chastised his Democratic opponent last night for having said he hopes to reduce troop levels in Iraq substantially within six months of taking office."

"That says to the enemy, 'Wait six months and one day,' " Bush said.

Taking Responsibility

Bush spoke twice about owning up to his decisions.

"KING: President Kennedy was told the Bay of Pigs would go smoothly and then he took the rap. He said. . .

"G. BUSH: I'm taking the rap, too, of course.

"KING: So the buck does stop. . .

"G. BUSH: Absolutely. That's what elections are about. The American people can go in that voting booth and decide whether or not . . . "

And later on, Bush said:

"These are very serious times that we live in. I've got a lot of explanations to give on decisions I have made. So I spend most of my time explaining why I have made some very difficult decisions and why I know that those decisions will make the country a safer place, or a better place."

No Regrets

Several times, King offered Bush a chance to acknowledge mistakes. There was the classroom question. There was a question about whether he sent enough troops into Iraq initially. There was a question about whether he regretted standing on an aircraft carrier in front of a "Mission Accomplished" banner.

No dice. Bush refused to bite on any of them.

Didn't Oppose the 9/11 Commission?

"KING: You first were opposed to the 9/11 Commission and then changed. Why?

"G. BUSH: Not really.

"KING: You weren't opposed?

"G. BUSH: Well, I just wanted to make sure that it was done the right way. I felt like that -- one of my concerns was that it would usurp the Congress' need to fully investigate."

But Bush's aides at the time made it very clear that he didn't support the establishment of a commission, and Bush himself had this to say in May, 2002: "I, of course, want the Congress to take a look at what took place prior to September the 11th. But since it deals with such sensitive information, in my judgment, it's best for the ongoing war against terror that the investigation be done in the intelligence committee. There are committees set up with both Republicans and Democrats who understand the obligations of upholding our secrets and our sources and methods of collecting intelligence. And therefore, I think it's the best place for Congress to take a good look at the events leading up to September the 11th."

Taxes I: Sales Tax, Yes or No?

Tim Ahmann writes for Reuters: "President Bush is likely to tout tax reform as a broad campaign theme but nothing as sweeping as a national sales tax, despite recent warm words, Republican sources said on Thursday."

But Maura Reynolds and Mark Z. Barabak write in the Los Angeles Times: "Although administration officials had quickly distanced the president from the remark, saying the plan was not something Bush would pursue in a second term, the president was more equivocal when asked about the issue on 'Larry King Live.'

"Bush suggested that the barbs about a sales tax were politically motivated, then implied he would not take such an action. But he added: 'Well, it's an option that some people think is a viable option. I just said it's an interesting idea. I do think we ought to look at ways to simplify the tax code.' "

Don't look to Chief of Staff Andrew H. Card. Jr. to clear this up -- at least not in his jokey "Ask the White House" appearance yesterday:

"Sondra, from Washington, D.C. writes: Is the rumor true that they are trying to do away with the IRS.

"Andy Card: Sondra---- Shhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhh."

Taxes II: The Rich Get the Breaks

Here's an excerpt from the text of Bush's speech in Las Vegas yesterday:

"Just be careful -- all I ask you is be careful about all this talk about taxing the rich. You know how that goes. The so-called rich hire accountants and lawyers to maybe not pay as much, and therefore, in order to meets all these promises guess who gets to end up stuck with the bill?

"AUDIENCE MEMBER: We do.

"THE PRESIDENT: The working people."

Well, it turns out that Bush is certainly right about who gets stuck with the bill -- but the credit doesn't go to the accountants and lawyers. It goes to his tax cuts.

Jonathan Weisman writes in The Washington Post: "Since 2001, President Bush's tax cuts have shifted federal tax payments from the richest Americans to a wide swath of middle-class families, the Congressional Budget Office has found, a conclusion likely to roil the presidential election campaign."

Here's the full CBO report (updated link).

Edmund L. Andrews writes in the New York Times: "Fully one-third of President Bush's tax cuts in the last three years have gone to people with the top 1 percent of income, who have earned an average of $1.2 million annually, according to a report by the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office to be published Friday.

"The report calculated that households with incomes in that top 1 percent were receiving an average tax cut of $78,460 this year, while households in the middle 20 percent of earnings - averaging about $57,000 a year - were getting an average cut of only $1,090."

Valerie Plame Watch

Adam Liptak writes in the New York Times: "A reporter for The New York Times, Judith Miller, was subpoenaed yesterday by a Washington grand jury investigating the disclosure of the identity of a C.I.A. undercover officer to the syndicated columnist Robert Novak and other journalists.

"The subpoena to Ms. Miller was only the most recent of a series issued to journalists in a politically sensitive inquiry that has on several occasions led investigators to question White House officials."

This is a bit of an odd twist, as Miller was not one of the reporters who wrote about Plame's identity. In fact, as Liptak notes: "The Times has not published any articles saying it received information about Ms. Plame's identity."

Miller's name may be familiar to some of you because she has been under fire lately for being insufficiently skeptical in her reliance on former Iraqi National Congress leader Ahmed Chalabi as a trusted source for her reporting.

My thought: This adds some substance to the theory going around town that prosecutors don't want so much to ask all these reporters they're subpoenaing about who leaked Plame's identity to them -- but instead are curious about some sort of corollary issue that either a witness or the target of the inquiry has raised.

For more, see Tuesday's column.

Terror Alerts

Mike Allen of The Washington Post writes: "The Bush administration believes more strongly than ever that al Qaeda terrorists plan to try to influence the presidential race with a massive preelection attack, a strike that is more likely to come in August or September than in October, a White House official said yesterday.

"The official ratcheted up administration warnings of an election-related attack on a day when President Bush and Vice President Cheney were on the campaign trail contending that Sen. John F. Kerry (D-Mass.) would be a weak commander in chief. Some Democrats accuse the White House of issuing repeated terrorism warnings to inspire fear so voters will hesitate to change leaders with the nation under threat. "

David Johnston and David E. Sanger write in the New York Times: "Al Qaeda operatives updated surveillance conducted at five financial institutions in New York, New Jersey and Washington as recently as this spring, according to a senior White House official who said on Thursday that the authorities still had no direct evidence of an active terror plot."

Johnston and Sanger also note the controversy over the leak of Mohammed Naeem Noor Khan's name. Khan is the al Qaeda operative whose computer allegedly provided the data that led to the Aug. 1 terror alert. Pakistani officials have said that Khan was cooperating with authorities and that the leak of his name compromised their investigation.

Johnston and Sanger write: "In response, the White House official said that it appeared Mr. Khan's name had been first disclosed by officials overseas, not in the United States. In any event, the official said, the arrest of terror suspects, even when unannounced, is often quickly detected by their families and associates. American officials have denied news accounts that Mr. Khan was working as a mole, or an informant for Pakistan, when he was arrested."

Meanwhile, AFP reports: "The leaking of the name of an Al-Qaeda operative who led US authorities to step up their terror alert around top financial institutions could compromise investigations into Osama bin Laden's network, experts warned."

Poll Watch

Judy Keen writes in USA Today: "President Bush's job-approval rating, a key indicator of an incumbent's chance of being re-elected, has turned upward, the Gallup Poll finds.

"The share of Americans who say they approve of the job Bush is doing inched over the 50% mark to 51%. No president who was at or above 50% at this point in an election year has lost."

Here are the Gallup Poll details.

A new Pew Research Center poll, however, finds that "Bush has seen no improvement in his job approval ratings over this time period. Today, 46% approve of the job he is doing, while 45% disapprove, virtually unchanged since June."

Attacks Heat Up

Dan Balz and Mark Leibovich write in The Washington Post: "The Republican attack on John F. Kerry over terrorism and Iraq escalated Thursday, led by Vice President Cheney, who mocked the Democratic nominee for saying he would wage a more sensitive war on terrorism and accused him of seeing the world as if the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, never took place. . . .

"Retired Army Gen. Wesley K. Clark, speaking for the [Kerry] campaign, called Cheney's comments 'outrageous' and said the Republican ticket was attempting to divert attention from what he said was a record of incompetence and ineffectiveness in the war on terrorism."

Peter Wallsten and Mark Z. Barabak write in the Los Angeles Times: "Republicans on Thursday leveled some of their most aggressive attacks yet against Sen. John F. Kerry, as a series of polls suggested the Democratic presidential nominee had gained slight leads in some battleground states and the economy continued to weigh on President Bush's prospects."

Here's the text of Cheney's remarks in Canton. He also spoke in Joplin, Mo. and Battle Creek, Mich.

Here's the text of the speech by Bush and the first lady in Santa Monica.

Here, also, is the text of an odd little Bush photo op with Nancy Reagan, who, to clear things up, later released a statement repeating her support for his reelection.

Today's Calendar

Harry Esteve writes in the Oregonian: "With Oregon poised to become the epicenter of national politics Friday -- for a few hours, at least -- the two major presidential campaigns clashed over which candidate has the more people-friendly style.

"President Bush and his chief rival, U.S. Sen. John Kerry, have scheduled simultaneous campaign events in Portland. Only invited supporters can attend Bush's two events, while Kerry is staging a come-one, come-all rally."

The Associated Press reports: "President Bush might have a gift when he visits Portland today -- a promise of $15 million to start the Columbia River dredging project."

Harry Esteve and Edward Walsh write in the Oregonian: "As Bush and his Democratic rival, Sen. John Kerry, converge on Portland today in dueling presidential campaign events, fighting has flared in Iraq, and Oregon's role in war is the biggest it has been in 60 years. About 700 Oregon National Guard soldiers are stationed in Iraq -- the state's largest overseas deployment since World War II. Another 500 are expected to deploy later this year."

The Oregonian's Web site is still trumpeting a disturbing Sunday story by Mike Francis in which he reported that Oregon guardsmen were ordered to walk away from Iraqi prisoner abuse at the hands of the newly sovereign government.

Bush also travels to Seattle, where Paul Nyhan of the Seattle Post-Intelligencer writes he will meet with Boeing Co. employees.

After that, Bush headlines a fund-raising dinner.

More Sovereignty Problems

Not only was Bush's answer about tribal sovereignty last week somewhat unintelligible -- laughably so, to some, as I noted in Wednesday's column -- but apparently it was actually offensive.

Lewis Kamb writes in the Seattle Post-Intelligencer that some Native Americans are furious that Bush said that sovereignty was something tribes had been given -- rather than it being something they had all along.

Twins Watch

This Associated Press photo captures two tank-topped twins visiting American athletes in Athens.

As Toula Vlahou of the Associated Press reports, the twins and their grandparents, former president George Bush and his wife Barbara, are staying on a private yacht owned by Greek billionaire financier Spyros Latsis.

The Piano Man

Kathleen Hennessey writes in the Los Angeles Times about Master Gunnery Sgt. Charles V. Corrado, who played the piano at the White House for 41 years, under nine president.

"He played polkas for the Kennedys and Sinatra for the Clintons. He knew just when to launch into 'Laura' when President George W. Bush and his wife took a surprise turn on the dance floor. He kept a tight lip and a calm head when Diana, princess of Wales, sashayed in front of him.

"And he played until his fingers wouldn't let him. After a two-year battle with Lou Gehrig's disease, Corrado died June 26 at 64."

Bush-Banned T-Shirt Does Boffo Business

Jackie Calmes notes in her Washington Wire column in the Wall Street Journal that "NARAL Pro-Choice America yesterday had raised nearly $15,000 online by offering copies of an abortion-rights T-shirt that got a Michigan woman and her family booted from a Bush rally."

Here's NARAL's ad for the T-shirt.

A Fish Is Not a Dog Toy

Anne Schroeder writes in The Washington Post's Names & Faces column that PETA is outraged that Bush, on his fishing trip with the Outdoor Life Network's "Fishing With Roland Martin," was videotaped throwing a small fish on the deck of the boat for his Scottie. "This is a Barney fish," Bush said at the time. "I always like to get a little one for Barney. He likes to play with them."

PETA president Ingrid Newkirk has written Bush a letter, explaining: "A fish has feelings."

'West Wing' Looks for Bounce in Polls

Andrew Buncombe writes in the Independent: "In that shifting world where reality and fiction intermingle, the producers of the award-winning television series The West Wing, are hoping the bitter and unprecedentedly vigorous election campaign between George Bush and John Kerry will boost their now-ailing show."

Fun With the Web

The bloggers are wild about "Build a Better Bush," a Web tool that lets you makeover the president's face.

Late Night Humor

From "The Tonight Show with Jay Leno," via the Associated Press: "Is it me or is Bush going everywhere Kerry goes? So far in the past week, President Bush has followed John Kerry to Davenport, Iowa; New Mexico; Las Vegas; Los Angeles; and he follows him to Portland, Oregon. The only place he never followed John Kerry was Vietnam."


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