He Said, She Said

Differing Tales of a White House Encounter

By Michael Abramowitz and Lois Romano
Washington Post Staff Writers
Friday, April 20, 2007

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) told colleagues yesterday that she was incredulous after President Bush pulled her aside at the end of a meeting Wednesday and told her he did not criticize her recent trip to Syria.

After all, Bush and other senior administration officials and top Republicans had slammed the speaker publicly for meeting in Damascus with Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. But in a private meeting with Democratic lawmakers yesterday, Pelosi said Bush told her in an unsolicited comment that it was actually the State Department that criticized her.

According to two people who were at the meeting, the speaker said she told the president that she wanted to come back to the White House and give him an official briefing on the Syria trip and Bush quickly motioned for his staff to set up a meeting.

Bush spokeswoman Dana Perino, who was at the White House meeting Wednesday, took issue with Pelosi's account of the conversation in the Cabinet Room, which came at the end of talks largely devoted to funding the Iraq war. Perino said that Pelosi started the conversation about the Syria trip and that she never heard Bush back off his criticism.

"I was there the whole time. I don't recall him saying that," Perino said. "I know that he is critical of the trip, and what he says in private is the same as in public."

Pelosi spokesman Brendan Daly said the conversation took place privately, as an aside.

At a news conference earlier this month, Bush was asked about Pelosi's trip. He said high-level visits to Syria, whether by Democrats or Republicans, send "mixed signals" to Damascus.

Vice President Cheney took a tougher line in comments about Assad. "This is an evil man. He's a prime state sponsor of terror," he told a Chicago radio station last week. "So for the speaker to go to Damascus and meet with this guy and treat him with the respect and dignity ordinarily accorded the head of a foreign state -- we think it is just directly contrary to our national interest."

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