By: E&P Staff
Appearing in hurricane-scarred New Orleans today, President Bush took a few questions from reporters, a little before Michael D. Brown, embattled director of FEMA, would resign. But here, the president could not identify any specific shortcomings in the relief effort, denied any racism in responding to the storm, and said there were plenty of troops to fight the war in Iraq and maintain security and provide relief here at home.
He also said, twice, that after the hurricane struck, and he believed New Orleans was not ravaged, “there was a sense of relaxation.”
Q Sir, what do you make of some of the comments that have been made by quite a number of people that there was a racial component to some of the people that were left behind and left without help?
THE PRESIDENT: My attitude is this: The storm didn’t discriminate, and neither will the recovery effort. When those Coast Guard choppers, many of whom were first on the scene, were pulling people off roofs, they didn’t check the color of a person’s skin. They wanted to save lives.
I can assure people from the — and I know from the state and local level, as well, that this recovery is going to be comprehensive. The rescue efforts were comprehensive, and the recovery will be comprehensive.
Q Mr. President, does the federal government need the authority to come in earlier, or even in advance of a storm that threatening?
THE PRESIDENT: I think that’s one of the interesting issues that Congress needs to take a look at. And it’s really important that as we take a step back and learn lessons, that we are in a position to adequately answer the question, are we prepared for major catastrophes, that the system is such that we’re able to work closely together and that —
Q Do you recommend that Congress consider allowing the federal government to act more quickly?
THE PRESIDENT: I think it’s very important for Congress to take a good, close look at what went on, what didn’t go on, and come up with a series of recommendations. And my attitude is, is that we need to learn everything we possibly can; we need to make sure that this country is knitted up as well as it can be, in order to deal with significant problems and disasters. Meantime, we’ve got to keep moving forward.
And I know there’s been a lot of second-guessing. I can assure you I’m not interested in that. What I’m interested in is solving problems. And there will be time to take a step back and to take a sober look at what went right and what didn’t go right. There’s a lot of information floating around that will be analyzed in an objective way, and that’s important. And it’s important for the people of this country to understand that all of us want to learn lessons. If there were to be a biological attack of some kind, we’ve got to make sure we understand the lessons learned to be able to deal with catastrophe.
Q Will what is needed to get this area back on its feet have any impact on the timing of troop withdrawals in Iraq?
THE PRESIDENT: In Iraq?
THE PRESIDENT: We’ve got plenty of troops to do both. Let me just — let me just talk about that again. I’ve answered this question before, and you can speak to General Honore if you care to. He’s the military man on the ground. It is preposterous to claim that the engagement in Iraq meant there wasn’t enough troops here, just pure and simple.
Do you care to comment on that?
GENERAL HONORE: Well, we have about 90,000 members of the Reserve and National Guard deployed, of a total force of approximately 400,000. So 90,000 are deployed. We’ve got the capability. We’re here, we’re demonstrating in deed every day. We’re performing the mission with the great support of the National Guard from multiple states. The response is here. The troops are getting the job done under the conditions that you see here today, and they’re making America proud that we have that capability.
THE PRESIDENT: The troop levels in Iraq will be decided by commanders on the ground. One, we’re going to — our mission is to defeat the terrorists, is to win. Secondly, the strategy is, as Iraqis stand up, we will stand down. And so, to answer your question about the decisions made on the ground in Iraq, they will be made based upon the ability of the Iraqis to take the fight. And more and more Iraqi units are getting more and more qualified.
There’s still a lot of work to be done there. Obviously, we’re going to make sure we have a troop presence to help this political process go forward. There’s an election — the ratification of the constitution — election will be coming up, and, of course, there will be elections this — later on this year. And we will have the troop levels necessary to make sure those elections go forward.
After all, the enemy wants to stop democracy. See, that’s what they want to do. They want to kill enough people so that — in the hopes that democracy won’t go forward. They tried that prior to — more than eight million Iraqis voting. They were unable to stop Iraqis from voting, because people want to be free. Deep in everybody’s soul, regardless of your religion or where you live, is a desire to be free. And they can’t stop it. And what we’re going to do is help — and they can’t stop democracy from moving. And so what we’re going to do is help make sure those elections are accessible to the Iraqi people.
Q Mr. President, there is a belief that we’ve been hearing for two weeks now on the ground that FEMA let the people here on the ground down. And perhaps, in turn, if you look at the evidence of what it’s done to your popularity, FEMA let you down. Do you think that your management style of sort of relying on the advice that you got in this particular scenario let you down? And do you think that plays at all —
THE PRESIDENT: Look, there will be plenty of time to play the blame game. That’s what you’re trying to do.
Q No, I’m trying to —
THE PRESIDENT: You’re trying to say somebody is at fault. Look — and I want to know. I want to know exactly what went on and how it went on. And we’ll continually assess inside my administration. I sent Mike Chertoff down here to make an assessment of how best to do the job. He made a decision; I accepted his decision. But we’re moving on. We’re going to solve these problems. And there will be ample time for people to look back and see the facts.
Now, as far as my own personal popularity goes, I don’t make decisions based upon polls. I hope the American people appreciate that. You can’t make difficult decisions if you have to take a poll. That’s been my style ever since I’ve been the President. And, of course, I rely upon good people. Of course, you got to as the President of the United States. You set the space, you set the strategy, you hold people to account. But yeah, I’m relying upon good people. That’s why Admiral Allen is here. He’s good man. He can do the job. That’s why General Honore is here. And so when I come into a briefing, I don’t tell them what to do. They tell me the facts on the ground, and my question to them is, do you have what you need.
Q Did they misinform you when you said that no one anticipated the breach of the levees?
THE PRESIDENT: No, what I was referring to is this. When that storm came by, a lot of people said we dodged a bullet. When that storm came through at first, people said, whew. There was a sense of relaxation, and that’s what I was referring to. And I, myself, thought we had dodged a bullet. You know why? Because I was listening to people, probably over the airways, say, the bullet has been dodged. And that was what I was referring to.
Of course, there were plans in case the levee had been breached. There was a sense of relaxation in the moment, a critical moment. And thank you for giving me a chance to clarify that.
Q Mr. President, where were you when you realized the severity of the storm?
THE PRESIDENT: I was — I knew that a big storm was coming on Monday, so I spoke to the country on Monday* morning about it. I said, there’s a big storm coming. I had pre-signed emergency declarations in anticipation of a big storm coming.
Q Mr. President —
THE PRESIDENT: — which is, by the way, extraordinary. Most emergencies the President signs after the storm has hit. It’s a rare occasion for the President to anticipate the severity of a storm and sign the documentation prior to the storm hitting. So, in other words, we anticipated a serious storm coming. But as the man’s question said, basically implied, wasn’t there a moment where everybody said, well, gosh, we dodged the bullet, and yet the bullet hadn’t been dodged.
Q Mr. President —
THE PRESIDENT: Last question.
Q This is two weeks in. You must have developed a clear image at this point of one critical thing that failed, one thing that went wrong in the first five days.
THE PRESIDENT: Oh, I think there will be plenty of time to analyze, particularly the structure of the relationship between government levels. But, again, there’s — what I think Congress needs to do — I know Congress needs to do — and we’re doing this internally, as well — is to take a sober look at the decision-making that went on.
And what I want the people of this state and the state of Mississippi to understand is that we’re moving forward with relief plans. And we’re going to move forward with reconstruction plans, and we’re going to do so in a coordinated way. And it’s very important for the folks of New Orleans to understand that, at least as far as I’m concerned, this great city has got ample talent and ample genius to set the strategy and set the vision. And our role at the federal government is — obviously, within the law — is to help them realize that vision. And that’s what I wanted to assure the Mayor.
Thank you all.