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President Bush Defends Donald Rumsfeld

Aired May 10, 2004 - 16:30   ET


ANNOUNCER: CROSSFIRE. On the left, James Carville and Paul Begala; on the right, Robert Novak and Tucker Carlson.

In the CROSSFIRE: President Bush is being forced to play defense. Today, he headed to the Pentagon for a briefing on Iraq and a show of support for his defense secretary.

GEORGE W. BUSH, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: Mr. Secretary, thank you for your hospitality. And thank you for your leadership.

ANNOUNCER: Will the president and Donald Rumsfeld be able to survive the political fallout?

And Tucker Carlson is a power player. "Jeopardy" confirms it. We have the inside story -- today on CROSSFIRE.


ANNOUNCER: Live from the George Washington University, Paul Begala and Robert Novak.


President Bush is standing firmly behind his embattled defense secretary, as the Democrats try to take advantage of a national disgrace and make it a presidential campaign issue.

PAUL BEGALA, CO-HOST: Mr. Bush today actually said that the country owes Donald Rumsfeld a debt of gratitude. You know, yesterday was Mother's Day. We thank our mothers. I suppose for Mr. Bush, today was "National thank an incompetent defense secretary day."



BEGALA: Just ahead, we will have debate on that and many other things, but, first, the best little political briefing in television, our CROSSFIRE alert.

The United States Army has announced the upcoming court-martial of Specialist Jeremy Sivits of Pennsylvania, the first court-martial in the Iraqi prisoner abuse scandal. But, while the 24-year-old soldier is being prosecuted, his powerful and privileged bosses, President Bush and Secretary of State Donald Rumsfeld, are busy telling the world just how great they really are. Mr. Bush actually called Mr. Rumsfeld a superb defense secretary during his trip to the Pentagon this morning and he praised Rumsfeld's courage and strength. This is the world according to President Bush.

Throw a 24-year-old soldier to the wolves and heap praise on the millionaire politician. But, then again, Mr. Bush himself is a millionaire politician. And he is nothing if not loyal to his class. But, if there is anyone who's got even a lower rank than private that he can scapegoat, I'm sure Mr. Bush will be prepared to throw him overboard as well.


NOVAK: You know, Paul, you've started off the week with one of your silliest political alerts of all time. You shouldn't play class warfare with a serious problem like this. If somebody did an abuse, whether he was a sergeant or a major general, he has to be court- martialed. Nobody suggests that this is something the president knew about.

But it really is I think demeaning to try to play cheap political tricks when we have a national problem.

BEGALA: The president knew about this months ago, Bob.


BEGALA: This is something the president knew about and should have done something about.


NOVAK: Vice President Dick Cheney is in the battleground state of New Hampshire today talk being about the economy. And he's good news. The Labor Department reports that, for the second straight month, hundreds of thousands of jobs were added to the economy, 600,000 all together for March and April. Some what do Democrats do when economic news is good? John Kerry just claims the economy is bad.

Kerry today said failure to pass the government health care Democrats have been trying to foist on America for years is hurting the economy. Last week, I visited my hometown of Joliet, Illinois, which had 25 percent unemployment when I was growing up. Today, it's booming. And that's bad news for Democrats.

BEGALA: But this should be what the debate is about in this election. If you agree with Bob Novak and you think the country is booming, you need to vote for President Bush. If you think we can do better, you need to vote for John Kerry.


BEGALA: He's got a plan to take us into a new direction. It's an honest debate. And that's what we ought to be debating in this election. NOVAK: Well, that's a nice little trick: We got to do better. But, you see, you cannot around the fact that they've increased 600,000 jobs in the last two months. You say, geez, those aren't good enough jobs.

BEGALA: They lost three million and create 600,000 and they want a reward for that. No, I think that's a pretty crummy record, Bob.



BEGALA: And I think that's what the election ought to be about.

Well, the Justice Department today reopened a 49-year-old murder case; 49 years ago, a 14-year-old African-American boy, Emmett Till, was murdered in Mississippi. He was shot in the head. His body was mutilated and dumped in a river, all for allegedly whistling at a white woman. Two men, now dead, were acquitted back then by an all- white Mississippi jury. But a Justice Department official today said it is possible that others were involved in the murder.

Now, look, cynics may see election-year politics behind this move. I don't care. It's taken more than 1,000, but I finally found something I can praise Attorney General John Ashcroft and President Bush for. I once had the honor of going on a civil rights pilgrimage with Mamie Till Mobley, Emmett Till's mother. She's gone to her reward now. But I believe that she's in heaven with her son smiling at the hope that justice will finally be done.


NOVAK: Well, it's something that also you and I can agree on, Paul. I remember when Emmett Till was -- I was old enough. I was working as a newspaper man when he was killed. And it was a terrible thing. But let me just say a word for Mississippi. Mississippi has changed a lot. That kind of racism and lack of justice is no more in Mississippi. And you wouldn't get those results from a Mississippi trial today.


BEGALA: Well, I certainly hope you're right. And I do. I applaud them for reopening this case. It's the right thing to do.


NOVAK: Dennis Kucinich is still campaigning, no matter that John Kerry has clinched the Democratic presidential nomination. The populist congressman from Ohio still preaches immediate withdrawal from Iraq and gets double-digit vote totals in some states, a sign of really appeals to Democrats.

He spends most of his time these days in Oregon for the May 19 primary, and then will go to Montana and New Jersey for the last primaries June 8. Dennis compares himself to a Boston Marathon runner. But he reminds me of Charlie lost on Boston's MTA. Did he ever return? No, he never returned.


NOVAK: And his fate is still unlearned. He may ride forever 'neath the streets of Boston. He's the man who never returned.



BEGALA: Congratulations, your singing debut on CROSSFIRE. This is why I guess the Gridiron show here in Washington sells out every year, because you get to sing.


BEGALA: I remember one year, I actually saw you sing in a dress at the Gridiron. You going to do that for us one night here?


BEGALA: I'd love to. Would you like to have me




NOVAK: Well, what about Dennis? What about Dennis? You think he's going to keep traveling?

BEGALA: Oh, I think it's great. He's an entertaining guy. We ought to have him back on CROSSFIRE.


BEGALA: The campaign and primary is effectively over, but if he wants to campaign, God bless him.

Well, President Bush gathered his top advisers at the Pentagon today. Were they discussing how to save lives in Iraq or merely how to save the president's political hide? We'll debate that in a moment.

And then later, we will take you behind the scenes as our own Tucker Carlson appears on "Jeopardy," the "Power Players edition.


TUCKER CARLSON, CO-HOST: I think the odds are I'll be crushed, spanked, destroyed, beaten. And I'm prepared for that.


(COMMERCIAL BREAK) ANNOUNCER: Join Carville, Begala, Carlson and Novak in the CROSSFIRE. For free tickets to CROSSFIRE at the George Washington University, call 202-994-8CNN or visit our Web site. Now you can step into the CROSSFIRE.


NOVAK: President Bush's opponents continue the political posturing over the Iraq prisoner abuse scandal. As Democrats sought political advantage from this national embarrassment by calling for Donald Rumsfeld's resignation, the president visited the Defense Department today to defend Rumsfeld's record as defense secretary.


GEORGE W. BUSH, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: You're doing a superb job. You are a strong secretary of defense. And our nation owes you a debt of gratitude.


NOVAK: In the CROSSFIRE to talk about the scandal and how the Bush administration and the Kerry campaign are handling it, former Assistant Secretary of State James Rubin, a senior adviser to the Kerry campaign, and former Congressman Bob Walker, Republican of Pennsylvania.


BEGALA: Gentlemen, thank you for joining us in the CROSSFIRE.

Congressman Walker, our president today, as Bob said, went to the Pentagon. He played a little bit of his remarks. I want to play some more, because he was I think strikingly out of touch with reality.

Here is the president of United States today.


BUSH: One basic difference between democracies and dictatorships is that free countries confront such abuses openly and directly.


BEGALA: Openly? General Richard Myers, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, called CBS and tried to suppress this story. And, directly, we know that the government knew about this a year ago. The president himself knew as late as February. And we still don't know what they did about it. It didn't look like they dealt with this either openly or directly, does it?

BOB WALKER (R), FORMER U.S. CONGRESSMAN: Well, I think you're just wrong.

The fact is that they issued a press release at the time that they understood that they had a scandal on their hands. They said flatly that they were going to prosecute the people. They'd been in the process of doing those prosecutions. Within the next few days, someone will stand court-martialed for this. That's exactly the way the military should react.

And the problem with the media frenzy is that you could literally jeopardize some of these prosecutions because of the kinds of things that are being said in the media. I think that the main thing that we want to get done here is to prosecute the wrongdoers, because, in the end, the world will judge us on whether or not we take care of the problem.

BEGALA: And who is the proper person to prosecute the wrongdoers if, as some believe, it goes all the way up the chain of command, not just some private in Baghdad, but all the way up the chain of command?

WALKER: Well, you may have heard about it, Paul. It's called the Military Code of Justice.


BEGALA: And that's run by the Defense Department and the defense secretary and the president. So we're going to have Donald Rumsfeld investigating Donald Rumsfeld?

WALKER: And the fact is, what you have is, you have the military itself with its own courts and so on that will prosecute these people.

BEGALA: All right.

WALKER: And my guess is that you're going to find they're going to be very harsh on people who violated the standards of our military. The men and women in the military are very honorable people and they are not going to put up with people who did the despicable acts that were done in that prison.

NOVAK: Jamie Rubin, inside the Washington Beltway, where you've spent a lot of time they've already had the trial, the execution, the incarceration of Don Rumsfeld. He's toast. But I want you to look at the new CNN/"USA Today"/Gallup poll.

Should Rumsfeld resign? No, 64 percent. Should he be fired? No, 62 percent. People don't think that it's time to get rid him, do they?

JAMIE RUBIN, ADVISER TO SENATOR JOHN KERRY: Well, what people recognize is that Rumsfeld's failures here are a reflection of a policy failure. And that same poll shows great, great concern, new concern grown over the last week, about our mission in Iraq. It's in jeopardy.

And instead of the president announcing today that everything is fine, we're staying on course, we need this president and this administration to realize if we're going to succeed in Iraq -- and we all want success -- we can't have failure there -- we need a change of course. And it's not just about Donald Rumsfeld. It's about the whole conditions that were set that allowed these abuses to go on. NOVAK: Well, I think you might have an interesting point, that people are concerned about what's going on in Iraq. But they don't believe that it is a catch-all to fire Don Rumsfeld. But you and your candidate -- your candidate didn't even know it was going on and he immediately said, get off with his Bob.

RUBIN: Now, Bob, that's just not true.

A year ago, John Kerry recognized what the American people are starting to recognize now. Secretary of Defense Rumsfeld launched a war without a realistic postwar plan, without enough troops, without the training for the troops...

NOVAK: Who voted for that in the Senate?

RUBIN: ... without the equipment necessary. And John Kerry said at the time that he was very concerned that, if we were going to go to war, we had to have an international coalition; we had to have a realistic plan.

This secretary of defense has failed the troops. We support the troops. We support what they're doing. But the policies of this administration have put this mission in jeopardy.

BEGALA: Congressman Walker, let me play another piece of videotape from our president. This is not recent and not commenting on the current scandal. It was back in July of '02. He was talking about corporate scandals. He was lecturing corporate CEOs about how they have to take responsibility.

Here is the president of the United States on personal responsibility.


BUSH: Everyone in a company should live up to high standards. But the burden of leadership rightly belongs to the chief executive officer. CEOs set the ethical direction for their companies. They set a moral tone by the decisions they make, the respect they show their employees, and their willingness to be held accountable for their actions.


BEGALA: Now, I agree with every word he said. Why isn't he practicing what he preaches and take the responsibility for this debacle?


BEGALA: He went to war on faulty intelligence and he presided over an occupation that's been a disaster. Why doesn't he take responsibility?

WALKER: And he did. And he said that what happened at that prison was totally acceptable to us as Americans. And he has apologized to the world


BEGALA: But he didn't take responsibility for it, though. He didn't say, it's my responsibility.


BEGALA: Ronald Reagan did when we were attacked by terrorists. But George Bush hasn't.

WALKER: The fact is that among the people that the Democrats are calling for to take responsibility is Donald Rumsfeld.

What I remember about Donald Rumsfeld is the man who did set the kind of moral image that I think we would want, the man who on 9/11 rushed out of his office and helped the victims of the Pentagon disaster, the man who when


BEGALA: God bless him for that, but the question was about President Bush, sir.

WALKER: No. When they -- when he was asked to leave his post and go into hiding, the secretary of defense said, no, I'm going to stay right here.

BEGALA: And god bless him for that.


WALKER: And the fact is, the fact is that those are the kinds of leaders this country has, that President Bush has appointed to office. And I think we can be proud of them.


NOVAK: Mr. Rubin, I'd like you to listen to the comments on the situation by the former Secretary of State Larry Eagleburger, who, whatever you think of him, he is not a partisan Republican.

RUBIN: He's a good guy.

NOVAK: He is a good guy.

Let's listen to what he said.


LAWRENCE EAGLEBURGER, FORMER SECRETARY OF STATE: I've never heard so many panic buttons pushed in one time in my life. I have to tell you, this is a miserable, awful thing. But for the United States to go into paroxysms of guilt over this forgets what we are.

(END VIDEO CLIP) NOVAK: You know, Jamie, if could you go back to your days when you were speaking for the United States of America and not for a partisan political campaign, don't you think Larry Eagleburger has a point, that all this breast-beating and self-flagellation doesn't befit a great power?

RUBIN: Well, you know, you're right about that. And I think it's worth pointing out that the speculation about Donald Rumsfeld began when President Bush refused to take responsibility, called him in and let his aides put out a story that he was taken to the woodshed. That's where the speculation about Donald Rumsfeld began, because President Bush, unlike a captain in the Navy that John Kerry is -- was -- is not taking responsibility for this.



RUBIN: A captain of a ship in the Navy takes responsibility for what happens on his watch. President Bush started this by shining the spotlight on Don Rumsfeld. White House aides were sent out to say he was taken to the woodshed.

NOVAK: With all due respect, that's not what my question was. My question was, does Larry Eagleburger have a point when he says we're doing too much breast-beating and self-flaggelating. It wasn't a question of who takes responsibility. It there too much, oh, woe is me, what a terrible country we are?

RUBIN: Well, with all due respect to Larry Eagleburger, this is a stain on our troops and it's a stain our country.


NOVAK: A stain on our troops?

RUBIN: It's a stain on our troops. That's the problem. We have hundreds of thousands of honorable men and women...

NOVAK: I'm surprised to hear you say that. I'm surprised to hear you say that.

RUBIN: ... honorable men and women around the world who now will be looked at because of these pictures in a different way. It's made the mission harder. I did stand at the podium and defend our country. And this would have been a tough day for me. And I wouldn't have gotten out of it by pretending nothing happened and saying let's move on.

The way to get out of this is to have accountability, transparency, get to the bottom of it, prosecute these people, but get this mission done right. And to pretend it's not a big problem is not doing the troops or the country any good.



WALKER: It shouldn't also be used for political fund-raising. The Kerry campaign sent out an e-mail calling Don Rumsfeld's resignation and in it asked for money for the campaign.


RUBIN: That's just not true. Not true.


NOVAK: Wait a minute!

RUBIN: It's not true. It may say so on the RNC sheet you got, but it's not true.


NOVAK: We're going to take a break. OK?



NOVAK: Jamie, thank you.

When we come back, our guests will enter the "Rapid Fire" and we'll ask whether Iraq should have immediate elections.

And later, is Tucker Carlson's reputation in jeopardy because of a game show? We'll show you a sneak preview.

But, first, an amazing story of survival in the waters off Massachusetts. Wolf Blitzer has the details right after the break.


WOLF BLITZER, CNN ANCHOR: I'm Wolf Blitzer in Washington.

Coming up at the top of the hour, President Bush voices his support for Donald Rumsfeld in no uncertain terms. He says the defense secretary is doing a superb job. We'll talk it over with Rumsfeld's predecessor, former Defense Secretary William Cohen.

Coalition forces shell insurgents in Kufa. We'll have the latest on the fighting under way right now in Iraq.

Also, a capsized boat, a 14-year-old boy in a life-or-death swim. We'll tell you what inspired a Massachusetts teenager during his desperate attempt to save his family.

Those stories, much more, only minutes away on "WOLF BLITZER REPORTS."

Now back to CROSSFIRE.

BEGALA: Thank you, Wolf.

Time now for "Rapid Fire," where the questions come faster than even President Bush can scapegoat a buck private. We're talking about the fallout from the Iraqi prisoner abuse scandal and President Bush's defense of Donald Rumsfeld.

In the CROSSFIRE, former Republican congressman Bob Walker and Jamie Rubin, a senior advise to the John Kerry campaign.

NOVAK: Jamie Rubin, "The Weekly Standard," a conservative magazine, this week says we should have immediate elections in Iraq. Whoever wins it, it's their country, their responsibility. Good idea or bad idea?

RUBIN: You can't have elections when you don't have security. We need to establish security and stability if we want this mission to succeed. And we're not even close to that. It's in trouble.

BEGALA: Bob Walker, yesterday, Republican Senator Lindsey Graham publicly rebuked Vice President Dick Cheney for telling Congress to get off Donald Rumsfeld's back. Is the pressure getting to Dick Cheney?

WALKER: Well, I think that what is happening is that you have an administration that is looking for some answers. And I think that they're attempting to find the right answers. And, look, the people on Capitol Hill are going to do this whether Dick Cheney says to them not to or not.

NOVAK: The same poll you've been quoting, Mr. Rubin, shows that President Bush is -- has a 3-2 advantage over Senator Kerry as to who would do a better job -- who does do a better job fighting terrorism. That's a big problem for you, isn't it?

RUBIN: John Kerry will fight terrorism. He will use American military forces to stop terrorism when necessary. The American people will understand that by the time of this election. But, unlike President Bush, the world will be on our side, making sure we find these people, we win the war of ideas. That's what a Kerry administration will bring.


BEGALA: Bob Walker, in the next 10 days, will any Republican senator...


BEGALA: ... call for Rumsfeld's ouster?

WALKER: I don't think so. I think they realize that he's leading the transformation at the Defense Department, which is going to take us into the 21st century. I think they like that leadership. And I don't think they will call for his resignation.

NOVAK: Bob Walker, thank you very much. Jamie Rubin. (APPLAUSE)

NOVAK: Next, today, our own Tucker Carlson appears on the game show "Jeopardy." Amazing. Ahead, you'll get an exclusive behind-the- scenes preview, who is his competition and how did he do.

Stick around to find out.


BEGALA: Our very own Tucker Carlson puts his smarts to the test as part of "Jeopardy"'s "Power Players" week.


ALEX TREBEK, HOST: Because of his Hanoverian heritage, American colonists called this monarch German Georgie or Geordie.


TUCKER CARLSON, CO-HOST: Who is King George?

TREBEK: Which one? Give me a number.

CARLSON: There was more than one?



BEGALA: The segment, which airs this evening across the country, pits Tucker against former Reagan speechwriter Peggy Noonan and "Washington Post" assistant managing editor Bob Woodward. It's been reported Tucker shows a disturbing knowledge of disgusting foods around the world.


BEGALA: To see how he did, you'll have to watch the show and -- I've always wanted to say this -- check your local listings for airtime.


BEGALA: Of course, Tucker will be back in the CROSSFIRE tomorrow where he'll be greeted as a liberator.

NOVAK: Well, I might just be loyal to our show. I'm going to bet on Tucker to win. How do you think of that?

BEGALA: I have a "Jeopardy" question for you. Who received a doctorate of humane letters from St. Francis University in Joliet, Illinois, this weekend?

NOVAK: I did.

BEGALA: Congratulations to Bob Novak.



NOVAK: Who is Bob Novak?

BEGALA: Who is Bob Novak? That's


BEGALA: A great honor, richly deserved.

NOVAK: Thank you.

BEGALA: From the left, I am Paul Begala. That's it for CROSSFIRE.

NOVAK: From the right, I'm Robert Novak.

Join us again next time for another edition of CROSSFIRE.

"WOLF BLITZER REPORTS" starts right now.



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