By: E&P Staff
White House Press Secretary Scott McClellan had not had a full-length press briefing in Washington, D.C. for weeks, and after today, may have wished he had postponed this one. With almost unprecedented vigor, the press corps attacked and probe the federal response to the hurricane disaster, the president’s personal responsibility and failure to fire anyone who failed in his or her mission.
Here is a transcript of the relevant portions.
Q Scott, the reality at hand right now is that the President said that we still live in an unsettled world. This is an administration that has told us since 9/11 that it’s not a matter of “if,” but “when” that we could be struck by a terror attack and, obviously, other disasters that are the result of Mother Nature. So at this point, where is the accountability? Is the President prepared to say where this White House, where this administration went wrong in its response to Katrina?
MR. McCLELLAN: You know, David, there are some that are interested in playing the blame game. The President is interested in solving problems and getting help to the people who need it. There will be a time —
Q Wait a minute. Is it a blame game when the President, himself, says that we remain at risk for either another catastrophe of this dimension, that’s not manmade, or a terrorist attack? Isn’t it incumbent upon this administration to immediately have accountability to find out what went wrong, when at any time this could happen again?
MR. McCLELLAN: This is a massive federal response effort that we have underway. We’ve got to stay focused on helping those who are in need right now and help them rebuild their lives and get back up on their feet. It’s a time of many challenges, enormous challenges. We’ve got to stay focused on the task at hand. That is what the President is doing.
Now, in terms of addressing threats, we’ve made a lot of progress since the attacks of September 11th. And one of the most important things we’re doing is staying on the offensive abroad. There are important priorities that we have to continue to address and we are working to address those priorities, too. But we have a major disaster that has occurred over a 90,000 square mile [sic] here in the United States. There are people —
Q Right. And there are people who want to know why this government couldn’t respond —
MR. McCLELLAN: Hang on. There are people who are suffering, and we’ve got to respond to their needs, and that’s what we’re going to keep our focus.
Q So no one is prepared to say what went wrong?
MR. McCLELLAN: We will look at back at the facts and we will get to the bottom of the facts and determine what went wrong and what went right. But right now —
Q Will the President support an outside investigation, or does he want to do it himself?
MR. McCLELLAN: — but, David, right now, we’ve got to continue helping the people in the region.
Q Will he support an outside investigation —
Q But, Scott, more concretely, an officer of the Northern Command is quoted as saying that as early as the time Hurricane Katrina went through Florida and worked its way up to the Gulf, there was a massive military response ready to go, but that the President did not order it. It could have been ordered on Sunday, on Monday, on Tuesday — the call didn’t come. Why not?
MR. McCLELLAN: Bill, let’s point out a couple of things. There were a lot of assets that were deployed and pre-positioned prior to the hurricane hitting. And you have to look back —
Q These assets were deployed, but the order to use them never came. The Bataan was sitting off behind the hurricane.
MR. McCLELLAN: I know these are all facts that you want to look at and want to determine what went wrong and what went right. I’m not prepared to agree with your assessment just there. There is a much larger picture here that we have to take a look at, and —
Q It’s not mine, it’s an officer in the Northern Command.
MR. McCLELLAN: — in terms of the President, the President issued disaster declarations ahead of time so that we could make sure we’re fully mobilizing resources and pre-positioning them. But this was a hurricane of unprecedented magnitude.
Q Right, but the military can’t go into action without his order.
MR. McCLELLAN: I’ll be glad to talk to you about it, but I’ve got to have a chance to respond to —
Q In view of the national crisis, will the President withdraw his proposal for this tax cut for the richest people in the country? And, also, my second question is, why did we turn down foreign help?
MR. McCLELLAN: Actually, I’m glad you brought that up. We have not. We have made very clear — I made clear last week, the State Department made clear last week that we are going to take people up on their offers of assistance from foreign countries. There are some 94 nations and international organizations that have made offers of assistance — whether that is cash support or I think water pumps from places like Germany or other areas. We said that if this can help alleviate things on the ground, we’re going to take them up on their offers of assistance and we appreciate the compassion from the international community and their offers of assistance.
Q And how about my first question?
MR. McCLELLAN: Your first question?
Q Biggest tax cut, permanent tax cut for the richest people in the country — in view of the national crisis, in view of the deficit —
MR. McCLELLAN: The highest priority for this administration right now is the ongoing response and recovery efforts —
Q No, no, I’m asking you a question.
MR. McCLELLAN: And I’m responding to your question. The highest priority right now for this government is the ongoing Katrina response and recovery efforts and helping the people who need the help. There are other priorities, too, and we’ll be working to address those, as well.
Q I just want to follow up on David’s questions on accountability. First, just to get you on the record, where does the buck stop in this administration?
MR. McCLELLAN: The President.
Q All right. So he will be held accountable as the head of the government for the federal response that he’s already acknowledged was inadequate and unacceptable?
MR. McCLELLAN: The President’s most important responsibility is the safety and security of the American people. He talks about that often. That is his most important responsibility. Again, there’s going to be plenty of time to look at the facts and determine what went wrong and what went right and how the coordination was between the state and federal and local authorities. Right now we’ve got to continue doing everything we can in support of the ongoing operational activities on the ground in the region to help people.
Q Well, the President has said that this government can do many things at once: It can fight the war on terror, it can do operations in Iraq, and aid and comfort people in Louisiana. Can it not also find time to begin to hold people accountable? It sounds, Scott, as if the line that you’re giving us — which is, you don’t want to answer questions about accountability because there’s too much busy work going on —
MR. McCLELLAN: Wrong. No, wrong.
Q — is a way of ducking accountability.
MR. McCLELLAN: You don’t want to take away from the efforts that are going on right now. And if you start getting into that now, you’re pulling people out that are helping with the ongoing response, Terry. Not at all. The President made it very clear, I’m going to lead this effort and we’re going to make sure we find out what the facts were and what went wrong and what went right. But you don’t want to divert resources away from an ongoing response to a major catastrophe. And this is a major catastrophe that we — and we must remain focused on saving lives and sustaining lives and planning for the long-term. And that’s what we’re doing.
Q And there are people in Louisiana and Mississippi who are doing that job very well. Your job is to answer the questions.
MR. McCLELLAN: And I have.
Q By saying you won’t answer.
MR. McCLELLAN: No, by saying that there’s a time to look at those issues, but now is not the time, Terry.
Q Scott, a question about the “plenty of time” assertion that you make — would it not behoove the efforts to, in fact, save lives and secure property if the people and procedures that are responsible for the inadequacy before are excised as quickly as possible? That is to say, should the accountability be determined immediately and that part be removed?
MR. McCLELLAN: Look, what should be done immediately is that we get help to the people who need it, and we continue to do that. We have been doing that; we’re continuing to do that. I know some just want to engage in the blame game. There will be a time to talk about all these issues. We’ve got problems to solve, Bob —
Q But —
MR. McCLELLAN: Bob, we’ve got problems to solve and we’re going to stay focused on solving those problems and helping those who need it.
Q But don’t you — the question would be, don’t you want to have your best resources available and best people in place to solve those problems?
MR. McCLELLAN: Well, you’re speculating about things at this point. I’m not going to engage it that. There will be a time to look at all those issues.
Q But the President, himself, said that the response was not adequate. It was run by certain —
MR. McCLELLAN: For those who were waiting on assistance and didn’t have it, absolutely, it wasn’t adequate. We made that clear last week. There were some people who needed help yesterday and they were still waiting on assistance. That’s why we — when we identified those problems, we made sure they were getting fixed. That’s why we’ve moved quickly to resolve the issue at the Convention Center in New Orleans. And now you have — a tremendous amount of progress has been made on the evacuation of people. You have some 700 shelters that have been set up — maybe a little bit less — with some 230,000 people who are in those shelters, and that includes states around the country. We appreciate all those who are responding and meeting those needs.
Q One last question. The person who says that he found out about the Convention Center seeing it on the media — that is to say the FEMA director — is still in place. Is that satisfactory that somebody would have responded like that?
MR. McCLELLAN: Again, this is getting into — we’re somewhat engaged in a blame game. We’ve got to —
Q It’s not a blame game. That’s accountability —
MR. McCLELLAN: Terry, we’ve got to —
Q It’s accountability.
MR. McCLELLAN: Yes.
Q Is “Brownie” still doing a “heck of a job,” according to the President?
MR. McCLELLAN: We’ve got to continue to do everything we can in support of those who are involved in the operational aspects of this response effort. And that’s what we’re going to do. There will be plenty of time —
Q If he fails at it, he’s not going to be good at it going forward. That’s what Bob is saying.
MR. McCLELLAN: There are people working round-the-clock with FEMA. The Secretary, the FEMA Director and many others who are working round-the-clock. And we’ve got to do everything we can in support of their efforts to make sure people are getting what they need.
Q Does the President really believe we could respond to a terrorist attack with any — amount of weeks, months?
MR. McCLELLAN: We’ve actually done a lot of exercises, David, to prepare for possible attacks, but —
Q Do you think most Americans agree, based on —
MR. McCLELLAN: But the most important thing we’ve got to do is focus on —
Q You mean exercises for Hurricane Katrina.
MR. McCLELLAN: We’ve got to focus on prevention, and that’s what we’re doing by staying on the offensive.
Q Well, let’s talk about it. Are you saying the President is — are you saying that the President is confident that his administration is prepared to adequately, confidently secure the American people in the event of a terrorist attack of a level that we have not seen? And based on what does he have that confidence?
MR. McCLELLAN: Yes, and that’s what he made clear earlier today, that obviously we want to look and learn lessons from a major catastrophe of this nature.
Q Yes, but you’re telling us today there will be time for that somewhere down the road. Well, what if it happens tomorrow?
MR. McCLELLAN: We can engage in this blame-gaming going on and I think that’s what you’re getting —
Q No, no. That’s a talking point, Scott, and I think most people who are watching this —
MR. McCLELLAN: No, that’s a fact. I mean, some are wanting to engage in that, and we’re going to remain focused —
Q I’m asking a direct question. Is he confident —
MR. McCLELLAN: We’re going to remain focused on the people.
Q — that he can secure the American people in the event of a major terrorist attack?
MR. McCLELLAN: We are securing the American people by staying on the offensive abroad and working to spread freedom and democracy in the Middle East.
Q That’s a talking point. That’s a talking point.
MR. McCLELLAN: No, that’s a fact.
Q No, it’s not. And you think people who are watching this think that’s — from what does he derive that confidence, based on the response —
MR. McCLELLAN: David, I’m interested in the people in the region that have been affected and getting them help. We can sit here and engage in this back and forth —
Q The whole country is watching and wondering about some —
MR. McCLELLAN: The time for bickering and blame-gaming is later. The time for helping people in the region is now.
Q There have been suggestions that the initial White House response was delayed somewhat because a number of key people were on vacation last week. During that critical 24-hour period after the levees were breached Monday, who in the White House was in charge of crisis management?
MR. McCLELLAN: Andy Card is the chief of staff, and he was in close contact with everyone. And the President is the one who’s in charge at the White House.
Q Scott, the President on Saturday referred to the problems of bureaucracy. It’s now Tuesday. The Vice President heads down there on Thursday to deal with it. Can you cite for us a specific bureaucratic impediment that has been identified and corrected today?
MR. McCLELLAN: I think that in terms of the specifics, that the Secretary — Secretary Chertoff, or FEMA Director Mike Brown can provide you the operational aspects of the specifics of what have occurred on the ground today. They’ll be doing a briefing later today. But there continues to be good progress made when it comes to evacuating people.
Like I said, most of the people have been evacuated. I think there’s a relatively small number. All those that were sent to places where people were evacuated, I think have been evacuated out of New Orleans. The levees, those are getting repaired.
Q Were those bureaucratic impediments that have been corrected? Or was that a —
MR. McCLELLAN: Well, the bureaucratic impediments that the President is referring to is about getting assistance to the people who need it. Yes, there are a number of agencies that are acting, but they have issued waivers to rules and regulations. The President wants to cut through the red tape in the bureaucracy and make sure that the assistance is getting to the people. One thing that he talked about in the Cabinet meeting today at length was, look, we’ve got to make sure that there aren’t rules in place that are preventing assistance from getting to those who have been displaced, or have been evacuated, who are no longer in a home of their own, they’re in a shelter. And we’ve got to take that assistance to them.
So, yes, that is part of — all that is part of cutting through the bureaucracy and red tape.
Q Scott, there’s words that James Lee Witt had said, that — people who had been there within three hours after everything broke loose. Why was Mr. Brown not on the ground?
MR. McCLELLAN: He was, prior to the hurricane.
Q Well, why didn’t he bring in the troops? Why didn’t he deploy all the necessary assistance that was needed?
MR. McCLELLAN: There were — disaster medical assistance teams were deployed. Search and rescue teams were deployed ahead of the hurricane.
Q But why didn’t he — but why weren’t teams deployed to the Convention Center? Why weren’t teams deployed to the Superdome? Why were people without water, without food? Why was there looting in New Orleans for survival? And you’re talking about zero tolerance. Why did these things happen over a period of days, and you start seeing Mr. Brown on the air talking about he didn’t know about the Convention Center and other things. Why?
MR. McCLELLAN: Look, you’re getting into all the after-action analysis, and I can’t tell you all the —
Q And you’re saying there is not a blame game, but you open the door to the response —
MR. McCLELLAN: I can’t tell you that everything you said is factually correct, and they’ve got — we’ve got to look at all the facts. We’ve got to determine what worked, what didn’t work, and apply —
Q Well, what’s not working? What’s not working in your view right now?
MR. McCLELLAN: — and apply lessons from that.
Q What do you see that’s not working right now? What is not working? Because these people are dying from dysentery now —
MR. McCLELLAN: Well, last week —
Q — infection now; they’re displaced, homes are gone. Does anyone in this administration know anyone that’s down there —
MR. McCLELLAN: Well, I think you need to talk to people on the ground —
Q — beyond Trent Lott?
MR. McCLELLAN: — people on the ground who have —
Q Does anyone in this White House know anyone that’s there, beyond Trent Lott, that’s lost a home, that has lost family, that’s displaced?
MR. McCLELLAN: The President visited with a number of those who have been affected by the hurricane. We went down to Mississippi and Louisiana on Friday. The President visited with a number of people in the Biloxi area who have lost everything they had. The President saw firsthand —
Q Does anyone in this administration know anyone personally who’s been affected by the devastation?
MR. McCLELLAN: Yes, the President has talked about those, and the President has visited with people who have lost everything they have. I know people that have been displaced, friends of mine. And it’s terrible when you go and see the devastation on the ground. We’ve seen the devastation on the ground. We’ve seen the homes that are no longer there. We’ve seen the flooding that has covered a large portion of New Orleans and that has taken lives. There are people who continue to suffer and we need to get them help. And that’s why our focus is on getting them help.
Q But even with the — just to be clear, though, you’re saying that Katrina, if you need to spend the money on Katrina, that comes first, and tax cuts would have to wait?
MR. McCLELLAN: No, Mark, I’m saying that there are a number of important priorities. First and foremost is helping the people who have been affected by Katrina. And there are other priorities, too, and we’re going to address those priorities. And you can do — you can do those — all of those priorities.
Q So they’ll have to wait?
Q So there will be —
MR. McCLELLAN: No, in terms of the — you’re asking about the congressional timetable. Congress — the Senate has come back into session, the House has come back into session this week. The Senate has put out what their schedule is for this week. Right now they’re focused first and foremost on Hurricane Katrina, and also on addressing some of the appropriations needs. And they’ve already put out their schedule, and so you ought to look at that schedule.
Q Scott, given the failure of leadership in the first days of this crisis, and given your reticence to get rid of any of the people associated with that leadership —
MR. McCLELLAN: Those are your words, not mine.
Q — wouldn’t it be more appropriate to follow the suggestion of appointing somebody as the coordinator, overall coordinator for the relief effort who is not associated with that failed leadership? Probably a former retired military person who could more easily coordinate the logistics and the coordination between the military…
MR. McCLELLAN: No, we’re going to continue to work in support of those who are overseeing the operational activities, and we appreciate the job that the Department of Homeland Security and Secretary Chertoff and all those at FEMA are doing to address the ongoing problems.
Again, this is getting into trying to finger-point and play the blame game. This is not the time for that. There are people who are really in need. Terry was down there in the region. He saw what has happened to the people on the ground and how they have lost everything —
Q I think they might want some answers, too.
MR. McCLELLAN: — and how they have lost everything they had.
Q In addition to help, they might want some answers, too.
MR. McCLELLAN: And they’re going to get them. But now is not the time, Terry.
Q No, it is the time, Scott.
Q Scott, a follow up.
MR. McCLELLAN: Go ahead —
Q Did the Mayor or the Governor turn down any requests made by the administration?
MR. McCLELLAN: Again, I think from this podium that we want to stay focused on ways we can work together, so I don’t think it helps any situation to get into all those internal discussions that are going on, on issues of that nature. This isn’t a time when people are trying to look at who’s to blame, or try to shift responsibility. This is a time when we’re all trying to work together to get things done.
Q But that hasn’t stopped you from suggesting pretty subtly that the local and state officials bear some responsibility.
MR. McCLELLAN: Thank you for your comment. I’m trying to get to other questions here.