Tim Russert Certifies McClellan Charges: 'This is not Moveon.org'

NBC's "Today" show, on Wednesday morning, led with former White House press secretary Scott McClellan's book as Matt Lauer declared it a "bombshell," and Tim Russert built up McClellan's credibility as he trumpeted, "This is not Moveon.org."

After a breathless accounting of the "scathing" and "searing" revelations in the McClellan book from David Gregory, Lauer and Russert dismissed Karl Rove's criticism of the former press secretary and underlined the impact the book would have on the election:

TIM RUSSERT: Karl Rove was out last night, basically relegating his position as unimportant. That he was not in the loop. He was not a key adviser. But the fact is, it's gonna be very difficult to diminish someone who was in that room, who was in that position for as long as he was.

MATT LAUER: And here we've got a president with historically low approval ratings, he can't run for reelection so this, is this just a parting shot on, on a departing president or will this have some impact on the fall election between Barack Obama, it seems, and John McCain?

RUSSERT: It will fuel the debate about the war in Iraq, whether or not we should have gone into Iraq. John McCain said yes, Obama said no. I believe that this will be expert testimony used by the Democrats against their incumbent president.

The following is the complete transcript of the introduction, followed by the Gregory report and then Russert and Lauer segment as it occurred on the May 28, "Today" show:

MATT LAUER: Good morning, bombshell book. President Bush's former press secretary Scott McClellan slams the administration on Iraq, Katrina and the CIA leak scandal in a new memoir. This morning details from the book that got everyone in Washington and beyond talking.

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MEREDITH VIEIRA: Washington buzzing today over what's in that new book by President Bush's former press secretary Scott McClellan.

MATT LAUER: That's right. McClellan was one of President Bush's longest serving aides. They go all the way back to days together in Texas. But now Scott McClellan has written a frank and often damning account of his days working with the Bush administration. He writes in his new book that the invasion of Iraq was, "an historic blunder." The President's photo-op after Hurricane Katrina, "a huge mistake." He even suggests that top aides Karl Rove and Scooter Libby met secretly to get their story straight in the CIA leak case. We're gonna have much more on this book coming up in just a couple of minutes.

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MEREDITH VIEIRA: But let's begin with that book that is rocking the White House today. A searing memoir from President Bush's former press secretary Scott McClellan. It is called What Happened: Inside the Bush White House and What's Wrong With Washington. David Gregory is NBC's chief White House correspondent. David, good morning to you.

[On screen headline: "What Happened? McClellan Book Bashes Bush"]

DAVID GREGORY: Good morning, Meredith. This is the copy of the book that everybody in Washington is gonna be talking about today. And what is so striking about this memoir is that for a president who prizes loyalty above all else this is an incredibly scathing memoir by somebody who is on the inner circle going back to the days in Texas when George Bush was the governor.

As you look at pictures of the day Scott McClellan resigned let's talk about some of the issues. On the war in Iraq, McClellan charges that Bush relied on propaganda to sell the war. He said there was a permanent campaign within the White House that involved manipulating sources of public opinion. Says that the White House press corps was too easy on the administration in the run-up to war, echoing criticism on the left on that score. Talks about Iraq as a serious strategic blunder. And with regard to the war and reassessment he says that the President lacked inquisitiveness about this. He said that he had an inability to go back and reassess or give an honest evaluation of the war.

Here's one excerpt from the book, with regard to Iraq. Quote: "Bush's way of managing the problems in Iraq was proving inadequate to the task. He was insulated from the reality of events on the ground and consequently began falling into the trap of believing his own spin."

The seminal moment of the Bush presidency, as far as Scott McClellan was involved, had to do with the CIA leak case and the outing of the identity of CIA operative Valerie Plame for which the chief of staff to the Vice President was convicted. And he talks about how Karl Rove, senior adviser to the President at the time, and Libby misled him, at the very least. And he think[s] that, that deception went all the way up to the vice presidential level and even to the President, who he believes unwittingly misled him as well. In the book he suggests that Rove and Libby actually had a secret meeting in the West Wing to in, in McClellan's view, coordinate their stories at a time when federal prosecutors were looking at all of this.

And this is what he said about the deception within the White House, from his point of view: "The President, he, President Bush, too, had been deceived and therefore became unwittingly involved in deceiving me. But the top White House officials who knew the truth - including Rove, Libby and possibly Vice President Cheney - allowed me, even encouraged me, to repeat a lie."

Then there is that iconic photo from after Hurricane Katrina, remember that, when President Bush was shot as, making a flyover on Air Force One, surveying the damage. McClellan says that this was an indication that the White House was, in his words, "In a state of denial," after Hurricane Katrina, what he talked about as a botched federal response. He said that he, McClellan, and then counselor Dan Bartlett opposed the idea of that picture being taken. But again it was senior aide Karl Rove who wanted the picture to be taken and he thought that, that was a mistake.

You go through the chapters of the book, they include things like: "The Permanent Campaign" "Deniability" "Triumph and Illusion" "Revelation and Humiliation" "Out of Touch." Just searing titles from somebody who was on the inside.

Now I just want to read something that just, I just received this morning from a former senior adviser to the White House who says, "This book has left many of Scott's closest friends puzzled and shocked. He draws broad and definitive conclusions from events in meetings that he, himself, admits he didn't even attend. He never expressed any reservations while serving. To do so in a highly publicized book is what makes people lose faith in those who work in Washington." Meredith I can tell you, talking to White House officials this morning, the President is out west. They say he has not seen the book and they are not gonna comment on it. There's certainly gonna be a lot of people who are in the White House, at the time, who will have something to say today. Back to you.

VIEIRA: Well you are as well. I mean you know McClellan well. Are you surprised that he would write such a critical book?

GREGORY: Absolutely surprised. There was never any indication that Scott McClellan, either publicly or privately, held these kinds of views about what was happening at the time on the war, on Katrina, on the leak case - which was his most difficult hour in the White House. He never expressed anything like this. This has always been a very tight-lipped White House. And he was, he was right in the center of that. He was, in many quarters, seen as a kind of a robotic press secretary. Not always the most effective, which is why he, he was removed at the time he was, when they brought in Tony Snow. But I do know that he was personally stunned by this issue with the leak case. He felt betrayed internally at the White House. He was very concerned about his credibility being tarnished and he knew, as it was happening at the time, he says it took two years before he really found out that his statements were, as they used to say in the Watergate days, inoperative. And that really left him with a very bitter taste in his mouth.

VIEIRA: Which may be why he wrote the book.

GREGORY: Yeah.

VIEIRA: David Gregory, thanks for your insight.

GREGORY: Sure.

VIEIRA: And it's 7:07am. With more here's Matt.

MATT LAUER: Alright Meredith, thanks. Tim Russert is NBC's Washington bureau chief, moderator of "Meet the Press." Tim good morning to you.

TIM RUSSERT: Good morning, Matt.

LAUER: This is the kind of book that's normally written by someone with an ax to grind, someone who leaves discredited. Scott McClellan is a loyal aide or has been a loyal aide to this president since his days in Texas. So how stunned is the White House about this?

RUSSERT: I mean stunned, Matt. Seven years of loyalty to George W. Bush. You know, beware of the quiet guy standing in the corner of the room. He just let loose.

LAUER: I'm just gonna, I'm just gonna read some things from the book and you just stop me when you want to, you know, interrupt here. "History appears poised to confirm what most Americans today have decided - the decision to invade Iraq was a serious strategic blunder. What I do know is that war should only be waged when necessary, and the Iraq war was not necessary."

RUSSERT: Matt he uses words like, "propaganda." He uses, "shading the truth." He's suggesting that the administration took the country to war for reasons other than they had expressed publicly. This is not Moveon.org. This is someone who was serving in the White House for seven years.

LAUER: He talks about the administration and, and the buildup to the war in Iraq and says that while he does not believe they used out and out deception, Tim, he says this, "But shading the truth? Absolutely. Innuendo, implication, intentional ignoring of intelligence to the contrary." Now some of this has been written before about this administration but again, not from the inside.

RUSSERT: Absolutely. He talks about the President's self-deception, unwillingness to really grapple with the hard, true facts. He talks about this coordinated effort, in terms of the war. Matt there's one exchange that, from 2004, when I asked George Bush about whether the war was one of choice or necessity. And he said the President seemed puzzled by that question. And he then writes, "How could he have been puzzled? That was the fundamental question that his advisers should have been laying out before him. Whether it was a war of choice or necessity."

LAUER: Well about those advisers McClellan, in the book, says that including, for example, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, "They played right into his thinking, doing little to question it or cause him to pause long enough to fully consider the consequences before moving forward."

RUSSERT: The one interesting thing in the book, was he says, he knows the President well and if he had a crystal ball today and could see the 4000 dead from Iraq and the cost of the war he would have never invaded Iraq. That's totally contrary to what the President has said repeatedly, time and time again, that he would wage the war even knowing what he knows today.

LAUER: Alright so, so two, two things real quickly. The White House has not commented on it but as David Gregory just read us we have some comments from people within or around the White House. What's, what's gonna be their method of attack here? Discredit Scott McClellan?

RUSSERT: Absolutely. Karl Rove was out last night, basically relegating his position as unimportant. That he was not in the loop. He was not a key adviser. But the fact is, it's gonna be very difficult to diminish someone who was in that room, who was in that position for as long as he was.

LAUER: And here we've got a president with historically low approval ratings, he can't run for reelection so this, is this just a parting shot on, on a departing president or will this have some impact on the fall election between Barack Obama, it seems, and John McCain?

RUSSERT: It will fuel the debate about the war in Iraq, whether or not we should have gone into Iraq. John McCain said yes, Obama said no. I believe that this will be expert testimony used by the Democrats against their incumbent president.

LAUER: Alright, Tim Russert. Tim thanks very much, we appreciate it. And we should note that Scott McClellan will be here for an exclusive interview on his explosive book. That's tomorrow morning, right here on "Today."

Geoffrey Dickens
Geoffrey Dickens
Geoffrey Dickens is the Deputy Research Director at the Media Research Center.