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Context of 'April 13, 2004: Bush Refuses to Admit Possible Mistakes in Handling Post-9/11 Events'

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White House chief of staff Andrew Card (see (July 11, 2003)) holds a late-night meeting of what press secretary Scott McClellan will call “select senior advisers”—Card, McClellan, communications director Dan Bartlett, National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice, Rice’s deputy Stephen Hadley, White House counsel Alberto Gonzales, and Gonzales’s subordinate Harriet Miers. One topic of discussion is the recent report that the White House had scrubbed a claim of an Iraq-Niger uranium buy from a speech by President Bush in October 2002 (see October 5, 2002 and October 6, 2002), months before Bush’s State of the Union address where he did make such a claim (see Mid-January 2003 and 9:01 pm January 28, 2003). The media reports that Hadley was warned to delete the claim by CIA Director George Tenet. Hadley confirms receiving the warning, and tells the assemblage that, three months later, he had forgotten Tenet’s warning. “Signing off on these facts is my responsibility,” he says. “And in this case, I blew it. I think the only solution is for me to resign.” Hadley is distressed that Tenet had, in McClellan’s words, “been made to look like the scapegoat, since he believed it was nobody’s fault but his own.” McClellan will call Hadley’s offer to resign “selfless .. [his attempt to] clear the name of someone he felt had taken an unfair degree of blame, and to accept his own responsibility for an honest mistake whose consequences were now playing out before a worldwide audience.” The others quickly reject Hadley’s proffered resignation, and decide, as McClellan will recall, “that an approach of openness, forthrightness, and honesty was now essential.” Bartlett and Hadley are delegated to “inform the world as to what had happened and why,” and Hadley will admit to having forgotten his conversation with Tenet” (see October 6, 2002). [McClellan, 2008, pp. 177-178]

Entity Tags: Stephen J. Hadley, Alberto R. Gonzales, Andrew Card, Bush administration (43), Condoleezza Rice, Dan Bartlett, Harriet E. Miers, Scott McClellan, George J. Tenet

Timeline Tags: Niger Uranium and Plame Outing

January 2004: Fitzgerald Seats Grand Jury

Special prosecutor Patrick Fitzgerald, investigating the Valerie Plame Wilson identity leak (see December 30, 2003), empanels a grand jury. Among the White House officials testifying before the jury will be President Bush, Vice President Dick Cheney, chief of staff Andrew Card, deputy chief of staff Karl Rove, National Security Adviser Stephen Hadley, Bush’s communications assistants Dan Bartlett and Karen Hughes, former Cheney chief of staff Lewis “Scooter” Libby, former press secretary Ari Fleischer, and current press secretary Scott McClellan (see January 2004). [MSNBC, 2/21/2007; Washington Post, 7/3/2007]

Entity Tags: Patrick J. Fitzgerald

Timeline Tags: Niger Uranium and Plame Outing

President Bush flounders in answering a question about what his “biggest mistake” after 9/11 might have been. During a White House press conference, Time reporter John Dickerson asks Bush: “In the last campaign, you were asked a question about the biggest mistake you’d made in your life, and you used to like to joke that it was trading Sammy Sosa. You’ve looked back before 9/11 for what mistakes might have been made. After 9/11, what would your biggest mistake be, would you say, and what lessons have you learned from it?” Bush’s press secretary, Scott McClellan, is horrified by what he later calls Bush’s “tortured response to a straightforward question.” Bush attempts to buy a moment with a quip—“I wish you would have given me this written question ahead of time, so I could plan for it”—but continues to fumble, saying: “John, I’m sure historians will look back and say, gosh, he could have done it better this way, or that way. You know, I just—I’m sure something will pop into my head here in the midst of this press conference, with all the pressure of trying to come up with an answer, but it hadn’t yet.”
'A Terrible Silence' - After what McClellan will recall as “an agonizingly long pause… a terrible silence [that] hung embarrassingly in the air,” Bush continues: “I would have gone into Afghanistan the way we went into Afghanistan. Even knowing what I know today about the stockpiles of weapons, I still would have called upon the world to deal with Saddam Hussein. See, I happen to believe that we’ll find out the truth on the weapons. That’s why we’ve sent up the independent commission. I look forward to hearing the truth, exactly where they are. They could still be there. They could be hidden, like the 50 tons of mustard gas in a turkey farm. One of the things that [weapons inspector] Charlie Duelfer talked about was that he was surprised at the level of intimidation he found amongst people who should know about weapons, and their fear of talking about them because they don’t want to be killed. There’s a terror still in the soul of some of the people in Iraq; they’re worried about getting killed, and, therefore, they’re not going to talk. But it will all settle out, John. We’ll find out the truth about the weapons at some point in time. However, the fact that he had the capacity to make them bothers me today, just like it would have bothered me then. He’s a dangerous man. He’s a man who actually—not only had weapons of mass destruction—the reason I can say that with certainty is because he used them. And I have no doubt in my mind that he would like to have inflicted harm, or paid people to inflict harm, or trained people to inflict harm on America, because he hated us.” After justifying his military actions, Bush concludes: “I hope I—I don’t want to sound like I’ve made no mistakes. I’m confident I have. I just haven’t—you just put me under the spot here, and maybe I’m not as quick on my feet as I should be in coming up with one.” McClellan will write that he remains “stone-faced and motionless” as Bush manages to flounder through the question without actually admitting any mistakes. [US President, 4/19/2004; McClellan, 2008, pp. 204-208]
'Why Can't He Pull Up Some of Those Talking Points?' - McClellan’s first response is to blame himself for Bush’s inability to answer the question, then he has what he later calls a “counterreaction,” thinking: “Wait a second! We’re talking about the president of the United States here! He didn’t get to be president without being able to bat down a simple question. We’ve talked about mistakes. We’ve talked about 9/11. We’ve talked about the invasion of Iraq. Why can’t he pull up some of those talking points?” McClellan calls Bush’s answer “rambling, rather incoherent, and ultimately unsatisfying.”
A 'Cocksure' President - After the press conference, McClellan and White House communications director Dan Bartlett carefully approach the president. They agree among themselves that the Dickerson question had gone poorly, but know better than to broach the subject to Bush straight out. They begin, McClellan later recalls, by complimenting Bush on “hitting the right tone and getting his message across” on the government’s fight against terrorism. Then, McClellan will write: “Dan tactfully broached the awkward response of the Dickerson question. We had to bring it up in the little time we knew we could hold the president’s attention.” Bush says: “I kept thinking about what they wanted me to say—that it was a mistake to go into Iraq. And I’m not going to. It was the right decision.” McClellan will recall Bush’s tone as “cocksure and matter-of-fact, not testy.”
McClellan: Bush Unwilling to Admit Mistakes for Fear of Appearing Weak - McClellan will later reflect: “There were many other times, in private and in public, when the president defended the most fateful decision of his administration. But few will be remembered as vividly as the one he made that night. It became symbolic of a leader unable to acknowledge that he got it wrong, and unwilling to grow in office by learning from his mistake—too stubborn to change and grow.” McClellan believes Bush is afraid to admit a mistake for “fear of appearing weak,” and will write: “A more self-confident executive would be willing to acknowledge failure, to trust people’s ability to forgive those who seek redemption for mistakes and show a readiness for change.” McClellan will add that Bush was unwilling to risk “the personal pain he would have suffered if he’d had to acknowledge that the war against [Iraq] may have been unnecessary.” But, McClellan will conclude: “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 or take on the difficult task of honest evaluation and reassessment.” [McClellan, 2008, pp. 204-208]
Defending Bush - Representative Duncan Hunter (R-CA), chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, defends Bush’s refusal to admit any mistakes by saying Bush struck the proper tone with his questioners. “He was giving us a leadership statement on Iraq,” Hunter says, and adds, “That is not the right time for reporters to try to throw the president down on the analyst’s couch and have him try to tell them about all of his failings. He has to spend his time giving a vision of the future for the country.” [Los Angeles Times, 4/14/2004]

Entity Tags: Dan Bartlett, George W. Bush, Duncan Hunter, Scott McClellan, Saddam Hussein, Charles Duelfer, John Dickerson

Timeline Tags: Complete 911 Timeline

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