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Multiple news outlets have reported that during an October 4 press conference President Bush denied that he has ever spoken with Harriet Miers, whom he recently nominated to the Supreme Court, about abortion. In fact, Bush said no such thing; he may have started to say something to that effect, but he stopped himself in mid-sentence.
During the press conference, NBC White House correspondent Kelly O'Donnell asked Bush, "Have you ever discussed with Harriet Miers abortion? Or have you gleaned from her comments her views on that subject?" What ensued was an exchange between Bush and O'Donnell in which he gave answers that dodged the specific questions she was asking, as she tried repeatedly to pin him down. By the end of the exchange, Bush seemed on the verge of saying that he had never spoken about the subject with Miers but stopped short -- prompting O'Donnell to later report that Bush had been "notably cautious" in his response.
From the October 4 White House press conference:
BUSH: I have no litmus test. It's also something I've consistently said: There is no litmus test. What matters to me is her judicial philosophy; what does she believe the role -- the proper role of the judiciary is, relative to the legislative and the executive branch. And she'll be asked all kinds of questions up there, but the most important thing for me is what kind of judge will she be? And so there's no litmus tests.
O'DONNELL: Sir, you've already said there was no litmus test --
BUSH: Correct. And I'll say it again: There is no litmus test.
O'DONNELL: But she is not someone you interviewed for the job that you didn't know. You've known her a long time. Have you never discussed abortion with her?
BUSH: In my interviews with any judge, I never ask their personal opinion on the subject of abortion.
O'DONNELL: In your friendship with her, you've never discussed abortion?
BUSH: Not to my recollection have I ever sat down with her -- what I have done is understand the type of person she is and the type of judge she will be.
Bush's assertion that "In my interviews with any judge, I never ask their personal opinion on the subject of abortion" did not answer the question O'Donnell asked: "Have you never discussed abortion with her?" Although Bush did interview Miers, his answer would mean only that he never asked her about abortion in that interview; he has worked closely with her for years and would have had plenty of other opportunities to learn her beliefs on the subject. O'Donnell seemed aware that Bush has had many other opportunities to determine Miers's position on abortion, and asked the president whether in his friendship with Miers the subject had ever come up.
In the final portion of his answer, Bush seemed about to say that he has never discussed abortion with Miers, remarking, "Not to my recollection have I ever sat down with her." But Bush stopped short of saying what some in the media have reported that he said -- that he never discussed the issue with her. Instead, he said only, "what I have done is understand the type of person she is and the type of judge she will be."
Press reports go beyond Bush's statement
Reporting on her exchange with Bush on the October 4 edition of NBC's Nightly News, O'Donnell noted that Bush's response to her question had been "notably cautious":
O'DONNELL: Fifty-five minutes in the Rose Garden, more than a dozen different subjects, with one woman at the center.
[CLIP] BUSH: I don't have to guess and speculate about Harriet.
O'DONNELL: But even in the president's own party, many say Supreme Court nominee Harriet Miers's views are unknown. So Mr. Bush used the "trust me" argument.
[CLIP] BUSH: I know her well enough to be able to say that she's not going to change, that 20 years from now, she'll be the same person with the same philosophy that she is today.
O'DONNELL: What is her philosophy on an issue like abortion?
[CLIP] BUSH: I have no litmus test.
O'DONNELL: With Miers, the president repeatedly stressed their years of close friendship. But when pressed, had they ever talked about abortion? He was notably cautious:
[CLIP] O'DONNELL: In your friendship with her, you've never discussed it?
BUSH: Not to my recollection have I ever sat down with her.
But numerous other reporters apparently heard more than Bush actually said. For instance, The New York Times wrote on October 5, "The president also said he did not recall ever talking to Ms. Miers, whom he has known for more than a decade, about her personal views on abortion, and he reiterated that he was a 'pro-life president' who nonetheless had no litmus test on the issue for judicial candidates." The Associated Press reported on October 5 that Bush "insist[ed] that he doesn't recall ever talking to Miers about abortion," and The Washington Post's report actually appended the missing words to Bush's quote: "And just as [Justice Clarence] Thomas told the Senate [during his confirmation hearings] that he never voiced a position on Roe even privately, Bush said he never talked about the topic with Miers. 'Not to my recollection have I ever sat down with her' to talk about abortion, he said."
Television and radio reports also mischaracterized Bush's remarks. For example, National Public Radio (NPR) White House correspondent Don Gonyea reported on the October 4 broadcast of All Things Considered that "the president says he doesn't know where Miers stands on abortion." On the October 5 edition of CNN's American Morning, national correspondent Bob Franken reported that "when pressed, the president said that even though he has known Harriet Miers a long time, he could not recall ever speaking to her about abortion."
Several other reporters besides O'Donnell provided a more accurate representation of what Bush said --and didn't say -- in the press conference. On the October 4 broadcast of the CBS Evening News, chief White House correspondent John Roberts preceded Bush's remark by reporting that "President Bush wasn't giving anything on what he knew from their personal relationship." Similarly, an October 5 report in the Los Angeles Times noted that Bush "sidestepped questions about whether he and Miers ever discussed her views on abortion":
He [Bush] also sidestepped questions about whether he and Miers ever discussed her views on abortion, saying instead that he had "no litmus test" for the nomination. "In my interviews with any judge, I never ask their personal opinion on the subject of abortion," Bush said.
Asked if the subject had come up in more informal conversation, he said, "Not to my recollection have I ever sat down with her."