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John King: WH thinks Lott can survive

CNN's John King
CNN's John King

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WASHINGTON (CNN) -- President Bush publicly admonished incoming Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott, R-Mississippi, on Thursday for "offensive" comments Lott made at a 100th birthday party for Sen. Strom Thurmond, R-South Carolina, last week.

Lott praised Thurmond's 1948 bid for the White House and said the country would have been better off had Thurmond been elected. Thurmond ran as a segregationist.

Bush's rebuke came amid a growing chorus of condemnation against Lott's comments, but the president stopped short of asking the senator to resign his leadership position.

CNN Anchor Bill Hemmer discussed Bush's remarks with John King, CNN's senior White House correspondent.

HEMMER: To the White House right now, and John King. We heard the president's strong words yesterday, but did not go so far as to ask him to step away from the Senate majority position that he will assume again in January. The words are so strong, why not carry it to the next step, John?

KING: Well, Bill, White House officials believe Senator Lott can survive, and their line here is that people make mistakes and he should have an opportunity to correct the public record and to state his views on civil rights.

Here at the White House, privately, they are urging Senator Lott to come out, if not this weekend, by Monday at the latest and do just that.

The president waited a week, and he is under criticism from some Democrats for taking a week to rebuke Senator Lott.

White House officials said the president has been busy doing other things, like Iraq, like North Korea, but they also can see behind the scenes here the president decided to speak out because there was beginning to be a concern that this could cause collateral damage, if you will, on the entire Republican Party.

The president, yesterday, when he delivered that strong rebuke, was in an audience [with] a great number of African-Americans on hand. Aides say the president decided yesterday morning he had no choice but to speak out, but they are saying they believe Senator Lott can survive.

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