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Several journalists question a recent White House press conference that was entirely scripted and orchestrated by the White House with the knowing complicity of the reporters present (see March 6, 2003). Journalist Russell Mokhiber, who attends the conference, later says it “might have been the most controlled presidential news conference in recent memory.… The president had a list of 17 reporters who he was going to call on. He didn’t take any questions from reporters raising their hands.” White House communications director Dan Bartlett later retorts, “If you have a message you’re trying to deliver, a news conference can go in a different direction.” However, “In this case, we know what the questions are going to be, and those are the ones we want to answer.” (Rampton 4/2003)
'Deferential Reporters' - ABC political reporter and commentator Sam Donaldson, a fixture of the White House press corps during the Reagan, Bush I, and Clinton administrations, later recalls “wincing” as he watched “deferential reporters” questioning President Bush during the “scripted” conference. Donaldson will say: “People ask me, ‘Do you wish you were back at the White House?’ And I say, ‘No, not really.’ [But] there are moments like Thursday night when—yeah—I want to be there!” Veteran White House reporter Larry McQuillan of USA Today says Bush’s “call sheet” of preselected reporters “demeaned the reporters who were called on as much as those who weren’t.” Another correspondent at the conference later says: “They completely played us. What’s the point of having a press conference if you’re not going to answer questions? It was calculated on so many different levels.” New York Observer commentator Michael Crowley notes that the press corps itself must share some of the blame: “Although some asked reasonably pointed questions, most did with a tone of extreme deference… that suggested a skittishness, to which they will admit, about being seen as unpatriotic or disrespectful of a commander in chief on the eve of war. Few made any effort to follow up their questions after Mr. Bush’s recitation of arguments that were more speech-like than extemporaneous: Saddam Hussein is a threat to America, Iraq has not disarmed, Sept. 11 must never happen again.… The press corps seemed mainly to serve as a prop, providing Mr. Bush with an opportunity to deliver another pro-war speech while appearing to bravely face the music.” ABC’s Terry Moran reflects that he and the rest of the press corps shirked their duty: “The point is to get [the president] to answer questions, not just to stand up there and use all the majesty of the presidency to amplify his image.” (Crowley 3/16/2003)
'Kabuki' Conference - Salon’s Eric Boehlert will later write: “The entire press conference performance was a farce—the staging, the seating, the questions, the order, and the answers. Nothing about it was real or truly informative. It was, nonetheless, unintentionally revealing. Not revealing about the war, Bush’s rationale, or about the bloody, sustained conflict that was about to be unleashed inside Iraq. Reporters helped shed virtually no light on those key issues. Instead, the calculated kabuki press conference, stage-managed by the White House employing the nation’s most elite reporters as high-profile extras, did reveal what viewers needed to know about the mind-set of the [mainstream media] on the eve of war.” (Boehlert 5/4/2006)
In light of the revelation that White House deputy chief of staff Karl Rove was a source for a reporter in the Valerie Plame Wilson identity leak (see July 10, 2005), the White House press corps grills press secretary Scott McClellan unmercifully on the entire issue. Plame Wilson will reveal a modicum of sympathy for the beleaguered McClellan, whom she will note “endured what had to be one of his hardest days on the job as reporters competed to ask the next question.” The reporters are eager to pry information out of McClellan and are exasperated at his refusal to answer questions in any depth.
Fire Rove? - One of the most probing questions involves the White House’s promise to fire anyone involved in the leak (see September 29, 2003). Asked, “Does the president stand by his pledge to fire anyone involved in the leak of a name of a CIA operative?” McClellan responds that the White House is not going to comment on an ongoing investigation, an answer the gathered reporters find less than satisfactory. “Excuse me,” the reporter continues, “but I wasn’t actually talking about any investigation. But in June of 2004, the president said that he would fire anybody who was involved in the leak. And I just want to know, is that still his position?” McClellan continues to deflect the question with the standard “refusal to comment on an ongoing investigation” line. He also refuses to answer the direct question, “Did Karl Rove commit a crime?”
McClellan Cleared Rove, Others of Culpability - Another reporter, apparently NBC’s David Gregory, asks why McClellan told reporters that Rove, along with National Security Council staffer Elliott Abrams and the chief of staff to Vice President Dick Cheney, Lewis “Scooter” Libby, were definitely not involved in the leak. “[Y]ou said, ‘I’ve gone to each of those gentlemen, and they have told me they are not involved in this’—do you stand by that statement?” McClellan confirms he said that “as part of helping the investigation move forward on the investigation we’re not going to get into commenting on it. That was something I stated back near that time, as well.” The reporter calls McClellan’s response “ridiculous,” and says: “The notion that you’re going to stand before us after having commented with that level of detail and tell people watching this that somehow you decided not to talk. You’ve got a public record out there. Do you stand by your remarks from that podium, or not?” When McClellan says he will go into further detail “at the appropriate time,” Gregory interjects, “Why are you choosing when it’s appropriate and when it’s inappropriate?” McClellan begins, “If you’ll let me finish—” and Gregory cuts him off, saying: “No, you’re not finishing—you’re not saying anything. You stand at that podium and said that Karl Rove was not involved. And now we find out that he spoke out about Joseph Wilson’s wife. So don’t you owe the American public a fuller explanation? Was he involved, or was he not? Because, contrary to what you told the American public, he did, indeed, talk about [Wilson’s] wife, didn’t he?” McClellan continues to refuse to answer. Later in the conference, he is asked if “you will be consistent with your word and the president’s word that anybody who was involved would be let go?” McClellan says he “will be glad to talk about it at that point.”
Ordered to Stop Talking? - Another reporter, following up on Gregory’s relentless questioning, asks: “When did they ask you to stop commenting on it, Scott? Can you peg down a date?” McClellan answers vaguely, “Back in that time period.” The reporter then notes that “the president commented on it nine months later (see June 10, 2004). So was he not following the White House plan?” Again, McClellan refuses to answer. Another reporter tries a different tack, asking, “Can you walk us through why, given the fact that Rove’s lawyer has spoken publicly about this, it is inconsistent with the investigation, that it compromises the investigation to talk about the involvement of Karl Rove?” McClellan answers that “those overseeing the investigation expressed a preference to us that we not get into commenting on the investigative side while it’s ongoing.”
When Did Bush Know? - McClellan is asked bluntly, “When did the president learn that Karl Rove had—” to which McClellan interrupts with, “I’ve responded to that question.”
Changing the Subject - McClellan then calls on Raghubar Goyal of the India Times, who he is sure will ask a foreign policy question having nothing to do with Rove or Plame Wilson. He manages to keep the subject more or less off of Rove for the remainder of the conference. Plame Wilson will recall, “I almost felt sorry for McClellan, who was perspiring and had that deer-in-the-headlights look to him.” (White House 7/11/2005; Wilson 2007, pp. 223-227)
Change in Media Focus - After this press conference, as Plame Wilson will note, the press begins issuing far more skeptical reports on the leak and its investigation, depending less on White House spin about the Wilsons’ supposed culpability and zeroing in on the roles of Rove, Libby, and other White House officials. Plame Wilson will recall that for the first time, the pressure was easing off of them and being refocused onto the White House. (Wilson 2007, pp. 227-228)
McClellan: Press Conference 'Brutal,' 'Humiliating' - McClellan will later characterize the press conference as “brutal.” He calls NBC’s Gregory “mocking” when Gregory asks whether he still stands by his old assertions of no involvement by Rove (see September 29, 2003), Lewis Libby (see October 4, 2003), and Elliott Abrams (see October 5, 2003). ABC’s Terry Moran is incredulous that McClellan would try to hide behind a refusal to “comment on an ongoing investigation.” McClellan will later write, “Eventually, long after leaving the White House, I came to see that standing in front of the speeding press bus in those days had much more to do with protecting the president and the White House from further political embarrassment than respecting the sanctity of the investigation.” McClellan will reflect that it was during this press conference, as he felt his “reputation crumbling away, bit by bit,” that he began to lose his “affection for the job.” He will write: “The ridicule I received that day and the following ones, though dispiriting and humiliating, was justified, given what I had previously said. Since my hands were tied (see July 10, 2005), about all I could do was go into a defensive crouch.” After the conference, McClellan receives a brief verbal apology from Rove. McClellan will write, “It’s clear to me, Karl was only concerned about protecting himself from possible legal action and preventing his many critics from bringing him down.” (McClellan 2008, pp. 260-261)
Terry Moran, ABC News’s chief White House correspondent, tells ABC host George Stephanopoulos that he believes White House press secretary Scott McClellan unwittingly lied to reporters when he asserted that White House staffers Karl Rove (see September 16, 2003, September 27, 2003, September 29, 2003, and September 29, 2003) and Lewis “Scooter” Libby (see October 4, 2003 and October 4, 2003) knew nothing of the Valerie Plame Wilson identity leak. “He was telling falsehoods right at us over and over unwittingly,” Moran says. Asked if McClellan knew he was lying, Moran replies: “No. And he signaled he wants to tell us the story,” referring to McClellan’s comments that he would like to be able to discuss his public support of Rove and Libby. Stephanopoulos asks, “[Y]ou say he didn’t know it, so that means Karl Rove lied to him?” “Yes,” Moran answers, “yes.” Moran notes that the White House will most likely do nothing except continue to “stonewall” and deny involvement: “My sense it right now they’ll kick this down the road. They’ll say it’s a continuing case and we’re going to kick it down the road.” (McClellan 2008, pp. 265-266)
ABC’s Terry Moran interviews Terry Jones, the pastor of a small church in Gainesville, Florida, who has gained notoriety by publicly announcing his intention to burn a Koran as part of what he has called “International Burn a Koran Day” (see July 12, 2010 and After). Jones says he and his church have conducted demonstrations before against the Islamic religion, which he calls “evil” and a source of worldwide terrorism. His plans, as they now stand, are to burn a Koran on September 11, in commemoration, he says, of those who died during the 9/11 attacks, and to protest “radical Islam” and “Shari’a law.” Such an act is itself “radical,” he admits, but “we feel that a radical message is necessary. We also want to send a message to the moderate Muslim to stay peaceful and moderate. We live in America, we have freedom of speech, freedom of religion, they are more than welcome to be here, worship, build mosques, but we do not want as it appears to be in parts of the world after they gain in numbers in population they begin to push Shari’a law, that type of government. We expect the Muslims that are here in America to respect honor, obey, submit to our Constitution.” Jones says he has no problem burning the holy book of another religion, and cites Scripture which he says justifies the burning of books that are “damaging” and “dangerous” to a Christian society. He denies that the planned burning is a “publicity stunt,” and says he and his church members are “risking our lives” by carrying through with their plans: “We have had over a hundred death threats. Some of them have been very graphic.”
Admits Most Muslims Will Be 'Hurt and Insulted' by Koran Burning - Jones admits that most of the world’s Muslims will be “hurt and insulted” by the Koran-burning, and explains: “Well, when people burn the flag, when they burn the Bible, when they burn down churches, I’m also hurt and insulted. But we feel that this message to that radical element is that important. In fact to a certain extent we would expect moderate Muslims to agree with us. We would expect for them to say the burning of the Koran we don’t agree with, that’s not a message that we agree with. We do not believe that this man, this church, this society should burn our holy book, there is no problem with that. But the message we are trying to send with that even Muslims should agree with. We are trying to send a message to the radical element of Islam. They should also be against that. Because it makes their religion look very, very bad. They should also stand to that and say: ‘Yes, that we agree with. We do not want Shari’a law. We do not want radical fanaticism Islam.’”
'Millions of People ... Agree with Us' - Told by Moran that “millions” of American Christians are “revolted” by his plans to burn a Koran, Jones responds that “there are also millions of people who agree with us.” He cites polls that his church has conducted, and that he says prove between “40 and 60 percent of the population agree with us.… We’ve had several times pastors come here saying: ‘We are in agreement with you, what you are doing is right, or anyway the message that you are wanting to send is right. But we can’t say anything. If we do we will lose our congregation.’ We have people who work for large companies have stopped out front and said, ‘We are in agreement with you but if we say anything we will be fired.’ That is in a country where we supposedly have free speech.”
Holy War? - Asked if his burning of a Koran and his invitation to Christians to join in the burning are not incitements to “holy war,” Jones responds: “If [American Christians] have a problem with the burning of the Koran, that’s fine. I realize the actual burning of the Koran is a radical statement we feel very convinced about it, we plan on doing it, we feel its very necessary. But if Christians were to say that’s too much for us or just normal people, they say the actual burning of the Koran is too much for us, that’s fine. I can absolutely understand that. That is no problem. But they should, all Christians should agree with our message. Our message is that radical Islam is dangerous, let’s keep an eye on it, let’s say no to it. and from a Christian standpoint they have to agree with us. Because according to Christianity, Jesus Christ is the only way. And the Koran does not recognize the resurrection, the virgin birth, that Jesus died for our sins, that he’s the son of God, that he’s God. So from the Christian standpoint they must agree with us.” Jones says that if Jesus Christ were alive today, he would “absolutely” join in the burning of Korans. Moran says the burning of a Koran is “hateful,” and asks if there is not some other way to get his message across. Jones says that radical Islamists must be met by radical acts from those such as himself who oppose them. He says that no Muslim, moderate or radical, should react with violence to any such Koran-burning: “I don’t like it when they burn the Bible. I don’t like it when in Afghanistan when they burn the flag but I also do not serve a god of violence. It doesn’t make me want to kill people. It doesn’t make me want to storm an embassy. It doesn’t make me want to call for the death of the president and that is what we are trying to reveal. Of course its insulting. Of course it’s not a nice thing to do.” The burning would not be an act of “holy war,” he insists.
Concerns from Military Commander - Moran tells Jones that General David Petraeus, the commander of US forces in the Middle East, has expressed his concern about any such Koran-burning (see September 6, 2010), and warned that such an action would jeopardize the lives and safety of US troops in Afghanistan and Iraq; moreover, such an action would be used to recruit Muslims to extremist groups such as al-Qaeda. Jones calls Petraeus’s concerns “valid,” but says to call off the Koran-burning would be “backing down,” and he has no intention of doing so.
Turning the Other Cheek - Moran asks, “Didn’t Jesus say love your enemy and if you’re struck on one cheek, turn the other cheek?” Jones agrees, and says that Christians should follow that principle “90 percent” or “95 percent, 99 percent of the time.” However, this is not one of those times, he says. “[N]ow is not the time to turn the other cheek, now is the time to face challenge.”
Rejection by Fellow Christians - Other Christian churches in Gainesville are conducting services where passages from the Koran are being read, to oppose Jones’s plans and to encourage outreach towards Muslims. Jones calls those actions “an abomination,” and says only the Bible should be read in any Christian church. “[F]or us to read that book from pulpits, that, that is absolutely terrible.… Christianity is not open minded.… And when we do acts like that we have left the Bible, those people are not Christians, those men of God do not represent Jesus Christ.” He acknowledges that his Koran-burning may put fellow Gainesville Christians and others at risk of reprisal, but says the symbolic action is worth the risk.
Problems with Law Enforcement - Jones says he and his church have been repeatedly denied open-burn permits by local officials, in what he says are efforts to prevent him from burning the Koran in the front yard of the church as planned. He calls the denials an abrogation of his First Amendment rights, and compares his actions to the civil disobedience practiced by Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. during the civil rights protests. The FBI and local police will be on hand on September 11 for the burning, he says.
Conclusion - The interview concludes as follows:
Moran: “And as of right now you’re going to go forward and burn Korans on Sept. 11th.”
Jones: “As of right now our plans are to still burn the Koran on Sept. 11th. Yes.”
Moran: “Such a hurtful thing to do to somebody.”
Jones: “It’s an insult. But we feel that the end message is more important than the insult. Of course it’s not a compliment when you burn the bible or the flag or the Muslims’ Koran, obviously not.”
Moran: “It’s sacrireligious, it’s a desecration of what they hold sacred and precious.”
Jones: “To them. Of course to us, the Koran is an evil book, an evil deceptive book.” (Moran 9/9/2010)
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