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Bill Schneider: White House handling of Lott 'clumsy'

CNN's Bill Schneider
CNN's Bill Schneider

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WASHINGTON (CNN) -- Moments after Sen. Trent Lott, R-Mississippi, announced on Friday that he was stepping down as Senate majority leader, pundits began speculating on what happened behind the scenes. CNN Senior Analyst Bill Schneider reported that some of the backstage maneuvering involved the White House.

SCHNEIDER: This is very much White House activity and there's a lot of resentment in the Senate about how the White House handled this. It was very clumsy.

The White House let it be known to reporters that they didn't want Trent Lott to remain as Senate majority leader. But they didn't want their fingerprints on this.

So whenever they had a chance, they made a public statement: "No, no we don't want to interfere. We don't want to push anybody. We're not behind Senator Bill Frist," (a Republican from Tennessee.)

And a lot of senators would say, "Well, what exactly do they want?" So right now, it looks like a bit of a mess. Trent Lott is being forced to resign under pressure, under duress. No particular "soft landing" has been arranged.

None of this would have happened if the president hadn't spoken up about a week ago in criticism of Trent Lott. But then when the president criticized Lott and said that he thought his remarks on former segregationist Senator Strom Thurmond were "not in the spirit of the country," it was pretty clear he didn't want Lott in there. He said nothing positive about Trent Lott.

But then Ari Fleischer -- the White House press secretary --- said the president is not asking Lott to step aside. So senators said, "What exactly does the White House want? It was never clear." Now it's become pretty clear that this is the way they want this to happen -- but not this messy.

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