Vieira Presses McClellan to Charge White House Was 'Lying'

NBC's "Today" show gave Scott McClellan two segments, on Thursday morning, to slam the Bush administration and promote his book What Happened and while Meredith Vieira repeated his charge that the administration was "shading the truth," in the run up to the Iraq war, that wasn't enough for the "Today" co-host as she pressed McClellan to go further and accuse the White House of "lying" America into the Iraq war:

MEREDITH VIEIRA: Let's go back in time now.

SCOTT MCCLELLAN: Sure.

VIEIRA: Because in the book you say the Bush administration made a decision to turn away from candor and honesty and you point to the war in Iraq as the prime example. These are your words now, "Bush and his advisers knew that the American people would not support a war launched primarily for the ambitious purpose of transforming the Middle East. Rather than open this Pandora's box, the administration chose a different path, not employing out and out deception, but shading the truth." And you say, "In an effort to convince the world that Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction, the administration used innuendo and implication and intentional ignoring of intelligence to the contrary." Innuendo, implication, shading the truth. You seem to stop just short of saying that President Bush and his administration flat out lied.

MCCLELLAN: Well actually, I say in the book, I say that this was not a deliberate or conscious effort to do so. What happened was that we got caught up in the excesses of the permanent campaign culture in Washington, D.C.

VIEIRA: What does that mean when you say that?

MCCLELLAN: Well what it means is that, that everything is centered on trying to shape and manipulate the narrative to one's advantage. Each party, or each side is trying to do that. That's what Washington has become today. They're trying to manipulate the narrative to their advantage. And that's the way the game is played. It's, it's a battle over power and influence. And how can we gain, or how can we win those battles, how can we win over public opinion instead of, you know what it should be more on, which is bipartisan, deliberation and compromise. That's become a distant second. And so--

VIEIRA: But however you word it, isn't it lying, Scott? Isn't that what they were doing?

The following is a complete transcript the first interview segment with McClellan as it occurred on the May 29, "Today" show:

MEREDITH VIEIRA: Scott McClellan good morning to you. Thanks for joining us.

SCOTT MCCLELLAN: Meredith, good morning. Thanks for having me on.

VIEIRA: The book is called, no problem, the book is called What Happened, which is the same question people are asking about you this morning, particularly folks who are watching right now in Washington D.C. What happened to the Bush loyalist who defended this administration, stood up for it when you were a part of it? Why now write such a critical book?

MCCLELLAN: Well because I believe it's important to look back and reflect on my experience. And talk to people about what I learned and what we can learn from it, to hopefully change Washington for the better. The, the larger message has kind of been lost in the mix of some of the initial reaction to the book. And I think it's important to go to that larger message. My hope is that by writing this book, and sharing openly and honestly my, what I lived and what I learned during my time at the White House that in some small way it might help move us beyond the destructive partisan warfare of the past 15 years.

VIEIRA: But you had to know this was gonna create a firestorm.

MCCLELLAN: Well I, I think I expected some of the reaction that was gonna come out. You know the White House would prefer that I not talk openly about my experiences. But I think there's a larger purpose to this book and that is the message I just talked about. It's really about looking at this permanent campaign culture in Washington, D.C. and talking about how can we move beyond it. When I went to work for President Bush back in 1999, then Governor Bush, I had all this great hope that we were gonna come to Washington and change it. He talked about being a uniter, not a divider. This was a president that had a, had a record as governor of Texas of being a bipartisan leader, of someone who brought people together to get things done, and an approval rating well into the 70s. And then we got to Washington and I think we got caught up in playing the Washington game the way it's played today. And I think a lot of Americans like me would like to see us move beyond that bitter partiness, partisanship that exists today.

VIEIRA: So he let you down then, this man that you believed in?

MCCLELLAN: Well, you know, I think I'm disappointed that things didn't turn out the way that we all hoped they would turn out. We, we all had high hopes coming in. And I think this is sharing my personal experience of going through that. Coming into Washington D.C. as deputy press secretary, then becoming the White House spokesman, the White House press secretary. And by the last 10 months or so of my time at the White House, I grew, I grew increasingly disillusioned by things. When the first revelation came out that what I had been told by Karl Rove and Scooter Libby, that they were in no way involved in the leaking of Valerie Plame's identity, which we now know is not true. When I, and despite the fact that I went to the podium and said these people assured me they were not involved. You know, I started, I started to become a little more disillusioned about things.

VIEIRA: Well, well you say in the book, "It was my reputation crumbling away." So essentially are you saying that they threw you under the bus?

MCCLELLAN: Well, you know, I guess that's one way to look at it. But the way I look at it --

VIEIRA: Is that the way you look at it?

MCCLELLAN: No the way I look at it and I talk about this in the book. There, there's no one I'm harder on in the book, I don't think, than myself. For all the faults I might talk about in terms of others and the key personalities, and also talk about some of their good attributes as well. These are good, good well-intentioned people. But like everybody, they have their own personal flaws. And I talk about my own flaws in, in the book as well and I blame myself for putting myself in the position of going to the podium and passing along information that I did not know was false, but later learned that it was. And--

VIEIRA: Are you talking specifically now about Rove and Libby or are you talking about the war in Iraq and--

MCCLELLAN: Yes. I'm...specifically right now I'm talking about the leak episode. The Valerie Plame leak episode. And I promised White House reporters, at the time, during that time period, I said, some day when this is all done. My hands were tied. The White House Counsel office said, "You know you cannot discuss this," when those revelations became known, that they had been involved in the leak. And I said, at the time, you know some day I look forward to talking about what I know and about, you know, my involvement in, in defending the White House in terms of the leak episode. And so I do this in the book but the book is, that, that was a kind of a launching-off point for the book. But the book is much larger than that. It looks really at how things went off course.

VIEIRA: Well let me go back to that for a second and then we'll look at the bigger picture because Karl Rove has responded to what you said and he says, "This doesn't sound like the Scott McClellan I knew. This sounds like left wing bloggers." And the administration has come out and said that you're disgruntled, that you're just mad because you got pushed out of a job. And this is your way of getting even, by writing this book.

MCCLELLAN: Actually disappointed is, is the word I would use. I'm disappointed that things went so badly off track, disappointed that we weren't able to come to Washington and change the tone--

VIEIRA: You have to be more than disappointed--

MCCLELLAN: --and rise, rise above it.

VIEIRA: --if you're pushed, pushed out of a job.

MCCLELLAN: Well actually I talk in the book about those last 10 months as I became increasingly disillusioned. And one of the most defining, two, two defining moments that caused me to become increasingly dismayed and disillusioned with the way things were going in Washington, D.C. One was the revelation that I had been assured, and Karl Rove and Scooter Libby both, I asked them point blank, were you involved in this in any way? Both assured me, in unequivocal terms, "No, we were not involved in this." And they even, Karl Rove, even told the President and the President and Vice President directed me to go out there and also exonerate Scooter Libby on this. And that's when I went to Scooter and asked him the same question. But the other defining moment was in early April 2006 when I learned that the President had secretly declassified the National Intelligence Estimate on Iraq for the Vice President and Scooter Libby to anonymously disclose to reporters. And we had been out there, talking about how seriously the President took this selective leaking of classified information. And here we were, learning that the President had authorized the very same thing we had criticized. I this, this--

VIEIRA: Did you talk to the President then, say why are you doing this?

MCCLELLAN: Actually I did. I talk about the conversation we had. I, I walked on to Air Force One, it was right after an event we had, down in, in the South, I believe it was North Carolina, and I walk on to Air Force One and a reporter yelled a question to the President, trying to ask him about this revelation that came out during the legal proceedings and the revelation was that it was the President who had authorized or enabled Scooter Libby to go out there and talk about this information. And I asked, I told the President, that's what the pre-, the reporter is asking about. He's saying that you, yourself, were the one that authorized the leaking of this information. And he said, "Yeah, I did." And I was kind of taken aback. And, you know, that was the kind of, for me, I came to a decision that, at that point, I needed to look for a way to move on. Because it had undermined, I think, a lot of what we had said.

VIEIRA: Let's go back in time now.

MCCLELLAN: Sure.

VIEIRA: Because in the book you say the Bush administration made a decision to turn away from candor and honesty and you point to the war in Iraq as the prime example. These are your words now, "Bush and his advisers knew that the American people would not support a war launched primarily for the ambitious purpose of transforming the Middle East. Rather than open this Pandora's box, the administration chose a different path, not employing out and out deception, but shading the truth." And you say, "In an effort to convince the world that Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction, the administration used innuendo and implication and intentional ignoring of intelligence to the contrary." Innuendo, implication, shading the truth. You seem to stop just short of saying that President Bush and his administration flat out lied.

MCCLELLAN: Well actually, I say in the book, I say that this was not a deliberate or conscious effort to do so. What happened was that we got caught up in the excesses of the permanent campaign culture in Washington, D.C.

VIEIRA: What does that mean when you say that?

MCCLELLAN: Well what it means is that, that everything is centered on trying to shape and manipulate the narrative to one's advantage. Each party, or each side is trying to do that. That's what Washington has become today. They're trying to manipulate the narrative to their advantage. And that's the way the game is played. It's, it's a battle over power and influence. And how can we gain, or how can we win those battles, how can we win over public opinion instead of, you know what it should be more on, which is bipartisan, deliberation and compromise. That's become a distant second. And so--

VIEIRA: But however you word it, isn't it lying, Scott? Isn't that what they were doing?

MCCLELLAN: And so what we, well, the, the point that I make that whether it was or not, it's just as problematic. And, and you get caught up in trying to sell this war to the American people. Paul Wolfowitz went and said publicly that the rationale that we all agreed on, that would be the best selling point for this war was the weapons of mass destruction and obviously the connection to Iraq. And much of that information was based in what could be substantiated. But at the same time, as we accelerated the build up to the war, the information that we were talking about became a little more certain than it was. The caveats were dropped. Intelligence, you know, contradictory intelligence was ignored, intelligence that had a high level of confidence was combined packaged with intelligence that had a low level of confidence. And together that made it sound like the threat was more urgent and more grave and gathering than it really turned out to be.

VIEIRA: But if you, but if you saw this happening, and right, at that point you were deputy, right, press secretary to Ari Fleischer?

MCCLELLAN: I was.

VIEIRA: Why didn't you express any concerns? He said you never said a word about it. You didn't say anything to anybody. If you were that worried, why not speak out or resign?

MCCLELLAN: Well, yeah, like I say in the book, I was like, I shared the view of many Americans. Which we were in a post 9/11 world and the President had a highly experienced foreign policy team. A team that was well-regarded for what it had done in Afghanistan in toppling the Taliban and done so, so successfully and a team that had taken strong action in other ways to prevent a terrorist attack from occurring again.

VIEIRA: But you saw them going down this road, Scott, that you said...

MCCLELLAN: And, and I gave them the benefit of the doubt just like a lot of Americans. I wasn't sure. I felt like we were rushing into this. But because of my position and my affection for the President and my belief and trust in he and his advisers I gave them the benefit of the doubt. And looking back on it, reflecting on it now, I don't think I should have.

VIEIRA: Was it cowardly not to stop then and say something?

MCCLELLAN: Well again I, I think my views were different then because I was, like I said, I was giving the benefit of the doubt. You're living in the White House bubble, you great affection for the man you're working for. I continue to have great affection for George W. Bush to this day. But at the same time, you've got to be able to step back and look at the big picture, and look what you can learn from this so that we don't repeat these mistakes in the future. And that's what I try to do in this book, is take readers behind the scenes, inside the White House during these defining moments and defining periods for the presidency so that they can get an understanding of what I was going through and what I was experiencing.

VIEIRA: Let, let me talk to you directly about Bush because you describe the President as, "Plenty smart enough to be president, but with a leadership style based more on instinct than deep intellectual debate." Who is the man in the suit? Is he somebody who just follows his gut but doesn't, isn't reflective about anything?

MCCLELLAN: Well, he largely is a gut player. I mean I think he will admit that, that he goes on gut instincts when he makes decisions. And that's what happened in the, in the decision to go into Iraq. I think very early on, just a couple of months after September, a few months after September 11th, he had made a decision that we're gonna confront Saddam Hussein. And if Saddam Hussein doesn't come fully clean, then we're gonna go to war. So there was really no flexibility in his approach. And then it was put on the advisers, "Okay how do we go about implementing this? How do we go about doing this?"

VIEIRA: But you also say in the book he saw it as an opportunity to create a legacy of greatness, almost as if he was concerned about his future reputation than he was at the reality of the moment.

MCCLELLAN: Well he absolutely cares very passionately about what he talks about, which is the freedom agenda and spreading democracy throughout the Middle East. It's a very idealistic and ambitious vision. That was really the driving motivation that pushed him forward on Iraq. This chance to, in his view, really transform the Middle East by making Iraq a linchpin for spreading democracy. And we now know that some of the expectations that were set early on were not properly set. It was, it was confusing. The selling of the war, the political propaganda campaign, as I talk about, with the realities of the war making campaign in talking to the American people about the hard truths of going to war. And I think the expectations later came back to haunt us because they were out of whack.

VIEIRA: You're also pretty tough on some of the other people who surrounded the President and you describe Vice President Cheney as "The Magic Man" and no one knew better how to orchestrate what was happening from behind the curtain. How did he shape events?

MCCLELLAN: Well the Vice President was given a lot of deference by the President. He was someone, he's someone that he trusts very much. And, and--

VIEIRA: Was he basically running the show?

MCCLELLAN: --he's very close to, no. I wouldn't, I wouldn't describe it that way. But he was given wide authority to go about implementing certain things the way he saw best. And he's someone that the President looked to for advice throughout these key policy decisions, particularly in the foreign policy realm and on economic policy as well.

VIEIRA: Do you think he was giving the President bad advice?

MCCLELLAN: Well I, I think that in a number of ways, he has not served the President well. And part of that is the, the secrecy and compartmentalization that exists within the White House. It's one of the things I talk about. The, the White House is very compartmentalized and, and sometimes decisions are kept just among a few, very few people and not shared widely with other people. I don't think that's a healthy thing, particularly in this transparent society we live in. It's very important to be open and forthright and, you know, embrace a high level of forthrightness with the American people.

VIEIRA: You also talk about Secretary of State Condi Rice and you say that, "No matter what went wrong, she was somehow able to keep her hands clean." Are you suggesting that she was more concerned with her reputation than she was with the good of the country?

MCCLELLAN: Well I think readers are gonna have to make those judgments. I try to--

VIEIRA: What do you think?

MCCLELLAN: I try to, I try to give them a glimpse of her. I don't think you can get inside her mind and read that. She's, she's a hard person to really get to know well. But I was around her an awful, an awful lot. And I came to realize that she is someone that, she and the President are very like-minded in their foreign policy views. And I felt that too often she was too accommodating of his views instead of challenging those views and questioning those views and too accommodating of the other strong personalities on the foreign policy team like the Vice President and like Sec-, the Secretary of Defense Rumsfeld, and too deferential to those individuals.

VIEIRA: Why now write this book, Scott?

MCCLELLAN: Well I think it's important that we...

VIEIRA: But why now? I know you explained, but why now?

MCCLELLAN: Well no. Because I mean I think it's, it's important to today's political debate to today's political discussion. You have both candidates. Senator McCain, just a few weeks ago, talked about the importance of ending the permanent campaign and changing politics as usual. You have Senator Barack Obama talking about changing the way Washington works. A message that is very similar to the one that the President ran on in 2000 when he talked about being a uniter not a divider. And so I think it's timely for us to look at these issues and learn the lessons from these experiences so that we can make better decisions in the future and hopefully change Washington for the better.

VIEIRA: You know when you left the White House in 2006, it was an emotional time for you and the President. You said to the President, "I have given my all, sir." He responded, he said, "One of these days," you and he "are gonna be rocking on chairs in Texas, talking about the good old days in his time as the press secretary." Do you believe you'll ever talk with him again?

MCCLELLAN: I, I don't know. I certainly don't expect it any time soon. I know that this is a tough book for some people to accept but--

VIEIRA: We're running out of time. We'll be right back.

MCCLELLAN: Okay.

VIEIRA: This is "Today," on NBC.

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