Vargas's interview of Bush on ABC contained false statements, missed opportunities

››› ››› RAPHAEL SCHWEBER-KOREN

During an exclusive interview with President Bush on the February 28 broadcast of ABC's World News Tonight, co-anchor Elizabeth Vargas repeated White House distortions and uncritically accepted Bush's answers -- even though some were demonstrably false.

During an exclusive interview with President Bush on the February 28 broadcast of ABC's World News Tonight, co-anchor Elizabeth Vargas repeated White House distortions and uncritically accepted Bush's answers -- even though some were demonstrably false. Vargas echoed the White House line -- which, as Media Matters for America has noted, is not credible -- that Bush "doesn't read the polls." She ignored a House Select Committee's criticism of the White House on its response to Hurricane Katrina despite using that same report to question Bush during the interview, even though the report's findings contradicted Bush's claim that the "problem that happened in Katrina" was that the White House lacked "good, solid information from people who were on the ground." Vargas also omitted the key distinction that a Dubai company seeking to take over operations at port terminals at six major U.S. ports is state-owned -- an omission that allowed Bush to suggest that anti-Arab sentiments were the source of criticisms of the deal rather than concerns with national security. Finally, Vargas's interview ignored a number of current issues, including warrantless domestic spying and the Plame investigation -- despite her having found the time to ask Bush: "What do you think you were put on this Earth to do?"

Vargas tells Bush, "I know you don't read polls"; administration actions say otherwise

Vargas introduced a question on Bush's low approval ratings by saying, "I know you don't read the polls," and after noting that a recent CBS News poll found that Bush's approval rating of 34 percent is at an all-time low, commented, "[Y]ou don't care about that." In her introduction to the interview, Vargas had commented that although Bush's "approval rating is at an all-time low ... the president will tell you he doesn't put much stock in polls, and believes with all the ups and downs, that he is building a strong foundation for the country's future."

However, Vargas's statement that Bush does not read the polls reflected the Bush administration's preferred image, not fact: as Media Matters has noted, while Bush has gone to great lengths to create the impression that he does not rely on polling, there is ample evidence that polling data play a substantial part in his administration's political strategy and messaging.

From the February 28 broadcast of ABC's World News Tonight:

VARGAS: I know you don't read the polls. You have said that many, many times.

BUSH: So, what are you going to do? Ask me about a poll?

VARGAS: I am going to ask you about a poll. Just the most recent poll, that's out today, that does have your approval rating at an all-time low for your administration -- you don't care about that -- but you have talked a lot about political capital --

BUSH: Yeah.

VARGAS: -- the importance of it; the value of it; your intention to use it. Do you think you have political capital?

BUSH: I got ample capital, and I'm using it to spread freedom, to protect the American people. Plus, we've got a strong agenda to keep this economy growing. This economy is strong -- it's -- it grew at a healthy rate last year. Productivity is up. We're creating jobs. The unemployment rate is 4.7 percent nationally. I mean, it's a strong economy.

VARGAS: So, you're not worried about that at all?

BUSH: No, listen, I -- you know, I know people make a big deal out of these things. If I worried about polls, I would be -- I wouldn't be doing my job. And I -- I fully understand that when you do hard things, it creates consternation at times. And, you know, I've been up in the polls, and I've been down in the polls, and you know, it's just part of life, in the modern era. I think the American people -- I know the American people want somebody to stand on principle, decide -- make decisions and stand by them, and to lead this world toward a more peaceful tomorrow. And I strongly believe we are doing that. And I'm -- I got to tell you, I'm enjoying it. It's a fantastic opportunity.

Vargas uncritically accepted Bush's explanation for Katrina failures, despite citing House Katrina committee report critical of WH response

Vargas failed to challenge Bush's claim that "the problem that happened in Katrina" was that "there was no situational awareness, and that means that we weren't getting good, solid information from people who were on the ground," despite using a document during the interview that directly contradicted Bush's claim. The final report by the House Select Bipartisan Committee to Investigate the Preparation for and Response to Hurricane Katrina, issued February 15, was highly critical of the White House's response. Nonetheless, Vargas -- using the report to question Bush about Homeland Security secretary Michael Chertoff's response to the hurricane -- did not mention the report's findings on the White House itself. While Vargas noted that the House report "called the federal response to Katrina, quote, 'a failure of leadership'" and "described FEMA [Federal Emergency Management Agency] as 'undertrained, understaffed and overwhelmed,' and lay [sic] the blame for that with the Department of Homeland Security for stripping down FEMA," she failed to mention the report's criticism of the White House for its failure to act on the information it was receiving from the field.

Contrary to Bush's claim that the White House failed to get "good, solid information from people who were on the ground," the House report [page 141] found that, at the White House, "[f]ailure to resolve conflicts in information and the 'fog of war,' not a lack of information, caused confusion," and that "[t]he White House did not suffer from a lack of information."

From the final report [page 143] of the House Select Bipartisan Committee to Investigate the Preparation for and Response to Hurricane Katrina, titled "A Failure of Initiative":

[Deputy Assistant to the President for Homeland Security Kenneth] Rapuano acknowledged at both briefings that "the fog of war" affected both the quality and quantity of information that reached the White House. The Select Committee also believes, in the absence of any information to the contrary from the White House, that the President's Homeland Security team did not effectively substantiate, analyze, and act on the information at its disposal.

Listed in Appendix 3 are examples of documents that flowed to the White House over the days right before and after Katrina made landfall, August 27 through September 3. The items logged do not reflect the entire information flow to the White House, or all documents provided to the Select Committee. Rather, they are meant to illustrate the type and range of information known to the White House suggesting Katrina and the subsequent flooding was not a standard emergency event. Yet the enormity of Katrina seemed not to have been fully understood by the White House until at least Tuesday, August 30.

The report [page 141] stated that "the White House's decision to withhold documents and communications raising concerns about executive priviledge, leaves the Select Committee no choice but to find, based on the information we have received, that a failure of initiative plagued the White House as well."

Some of the documents identified in Appendix 3 of the House report as having been received by the White House's Homeland Security Council (HSC) include:

  • Received at 8/29; 6:10 a.m.: HSOC [Homeland Security Operations Center] reports: Katrina weakens to Cat 4. Coastal storm surge flooding of 18-22' above normal tide levels, locally as high as 28 feet. Some levees in New Orleans could be overtopped.
  • Received at 8/30; 12:02 a.m.: HSOC reports: Marty Bahamonde [FEMA official in New Orleans] reports the following after a helicopter over flight: Access to the city is impeded due to flooding to the north and east.

I-10 Twin Span bridges to the east of Slidell are compromised in both directions. Portions of this bridge are buckled, askew and in some cases gone.

No ability to enter NO from the east.

West I-10 and I-610 junction connecting Jefferson and Orleans Parish is under water.

Entrance from the north is not possible because roads are under water.

Quarter mile breach in the levee near the 17th St. Canal about 200 yards from Lake Pontchartrain allowing free water to flow into the city.

Levee in Meterie is in tact.

Only one of the main pumps is reported to be operable but its longevity is doubtful.

Flooding is greatest in the north and east in New Orleans.

Homes are completely underwater.

Hundreds of people were observed on roofs and balconies.

A few bodies were seen floating in the water.

  • Received at 8/30; 6:33 a.m.: HSOC reports: Levee breach, 17th St. at Canal Blvd - exceeds 100 meters in length. Much of downtown and east NO is underwater, the depth of which is unknown. Flooding to a depth of 8-10 feet in Meterie and 6 feet in 9th Ward.
  • Received at 9/1; 4:00 p.m.: LA reports: Jefferson Parish has people on street searching for food. There are contaminated flood waters and the streets are impassable. Orleans Parish's 911 system is inoperable. Entire City of NO is flooded except the French Quarter.

In addition, Vargas asked Bush when he "realized the government was failing," but failed to challenge his response that he realized it "[w]hen I saw TV reporters interviewing people who were screaming for help. It looked -- the scenes looked chaotic and desperate." Vargas might have pointed out that although ABC reported on September 1, 2005, that residents at the New Orleans convention center desperately sought aid, Bush still praised former FEMA director Michael D. Brown, on September 2, 2005, for doing a "heck of a job."

Vargas could also have pointed out that the administration appeared at least unaware of media reports as well -- using them selectively to justify Bush's false statement on September 1, 2005, that "I don't think anybody anticipated the breach of the levees." As Media Matters has noted, Chertoff falsely justified Bush's statement that no one "anticipated the breach of the levees" by suggesting that Bush had been referring to newspaper reports from the morning after the storm that stated New Orleans had "dodged a bullet" because the eye of the storm had passed to the east of the city." As Media Matters noted, news reports throughout the afternoon and evening of August 29, 2005, reported other levee breaks and massive flooding in New Orleans, including a post on the weblog of the New Orleans Times-Picayune more than 12 hours before the "dodged a bullet" headlines that reported that "City Hall confirmed a breach of the levee along the 17th Street Canal at Bellaire Drive, allowing water to spill into Lakeview." And as noted above, the House committee report found [page 142] that the White House HSC received Bahamonde's report of a quarter-mile breach in the levee at 17th Street Canal just after midnight on Tuesday, August 30, 2005.

From the February 28 broadcast of ABC's World News Tonight:

VARGAS: We met President Bush this morning in the Oval Office, just two hours before he left the White House for a trip to India and Pakistan. On this anniversary of one of the worst natural disasters in the nation's history, we began by asking him about last week's congressional report on Hurricane Katrina. It said that four and a half years after 9-11, the United States is still "woefully unprepared" for another natural disaster or terrorist attack.

Do you agree with that assessment that the United States is, quote, "woefully unprepared" for another natural disaster or attack?

BUSH: I -- I agree that we didn't do as good a job as we could have done on Katrina, and so, while I can't predict 100 percent success on a catastrophic event --

VARGAS: Mm-hmm.

BUSH: -- I can say that lessons learned from Katrina were being implemented quickly. Listen, here's the problem that happened in Katrina. There was no situational awareness, and that means that we weren't getting good, solid information from people who were on the ground. And we need to do a better job. One reason we weren't is because communication systems got wiped out. And in many cases, we were relying upon the media, who happened to have better situational awareness than the government. And when you have the media have better situational awareness than the government, the American people are saying, "Wait a minute, what is happening?"

VARGAS: So, you don't agree with that report that calls the U.S., quote, "woefully unprepared?"

BUSH: I -- I think the U.S. is better prepared than "woefully unprepared."

VARGAS: Mm-hmm.

BUSH: There's no question we've got more work to do, and our report on Katrina outlined the work that needs to be done.

VARGAS: When you look back on those days immediately following when Katrina struck, what moment do you think was the moment that you realized that the government was failing, especially, the people of New Orleans?

BUSH: When I saw TV reporters interviewing people who were screaming for help. It looked -- the scenes looked chaotic and desperate, and I realized that our government was -- could have done a better job of comforting people. The -- the chaotic scenes were very troubling. It was very unsettling for me to realize our fellow citizens were in near-panic, wondering where -- where -- where the help was.

VARGAS: The House report called the federal response to Katrina, quote, "a failure of leadership." It described FEMA as "undertrained, understaffed and overwhelmed," and lay [sic] the blame for that with the Department of Homeland Security for stripping down FEMA.

BUSH: Yeah.

VARGAS: Do you think you're being well-served by Secretary Chertoff?

BUSH: I do. I think he's doing a fine job. I also know he's willing to accept criticism and respond.

VARGAS: But when these reports place so much responsibility at Mr. Chertoff's feet, if he were to offer his resignation to you, would you accept it?

BUSH: Oh, I don't -- I don't think he's going to.

Vargas ignored Dubai port company's state ownership, allowing Bush to falsely attack port deal critics

Vargas inaccurately characterized Dubai Ports World (DPW), the company poised to take over operations at six U.S. ports, as simply "a company from the United Arab Emirates." In fact, DPW is not merely "from" the UAE, but is owned by a member state of the UAE; as Media Matters has noted, DPW's state ownership is a key part of the debate over this issue. Federal law requires an additional 45-day review if "the acquirer is controlled by or acting on behalf of a foreign government" and the acquisition "could result in control of a person engaged in interstate commerce in the U.S. that could affect the national security of the U.S." Critics argue that transferring the management of six U.S. ports to a company owned by a state with a mixed record on terrorism "could affect" national security, and therefore, according to this law, it should have triggered the additional review prior to the government's approval of the transaction.

Vargas's incorrect characterization of DPW allowed Bush to both echo her description, unchallenged -- "This company, by the way, is purchasing this from a foreign -- another company that is a foreign company" -- and then falsely attack the port deal's "critics" for apparent anti-Arab bias. "[W]hat kind of signal does it send to say it's OK for a British company, but not OK for an Arab company to manage this port, when, in fact, this same company manages ports all around the world."

From the February 28 broadcast of ABC's World News Tonight:

VARGAS: You said this morning, you reiterated your support, once again, for the deal that would allow a company from the United Arab Emirates to take over management of several U.S. seaports. If there are still concerns by some prominent members of your own party, other experts, even Democrats, about the security of this deal after the 45-day review, would you be willing to scuttle the deal?

BUSH: I'd want to know what those concerns were. Now, one of the reasons that we have a process the way we have is to make sure that people are able to analyze things in an objective way, from a security perspective, not a political perspective. The security of our ports is -- is managed by the [U.S.] Coast Guard and customs. This company, like its predecessor, if the deal goes through, manages terminals. There's the offloading facilities. This company would have a U.S. management team. This company --

VARGAS: But even --

BUSH: -- let me, let me finish. This company, by the way, is purchasing this from a foreign -- another company that is a foreign company. Many of the terminal ports in the United States are run by foreign companies; Chinese companies or Singaporean companies. And so, it's -- I guess -- listen. If I -- if I pick up my newspaper and see, you know, "Bush Turning Over Ports to Terrorist Nations," I would be concerned. And I must confess that was kind of the first blush.

VARGAS: But you haven't prejudged the 45-day security review. If, in fact, there are still concerns, even if you don't share them --

BUSH: Well, the, the difference -- well, it's the difference between somebody who has made up their mind regardless of the facts and the facts. And secondly, if not, what kind of signal does it send to say it's OK for a British company, but not OK for an Arab company to manage this port, when, in fact, this same company manages ports all around the world. Here we are trying to put a coalition of the willing together to protect America, to win the war on terror. And I would ask the critics and the people that are skeptical, what kind of signal does it send to the -- to our friends in the Arab world, people who are joining us in the war on terror, people who want to fight off the terrorists, to say, it's OK for one company from one country to be able to have this management contract, but not you?

VARGAS: I guess I just want to know if it's -- if you're open to the possibility of this deal not happening, if that is an option to you.

BUSH: You know, the only way it won't happen is if there is a true security threat to the United States of America.

Vargas' missed opportunities

In the interview, Vargas failed to ask about a number of important issues:

  • Bush's authorization for the National Security Agency to conduct warrantless domestic wiretapping on American citizens
  • Bush's claims of expansive executive power to ignore U.S. laws when fighting terrorists, for example, his signing statement regarding the congressional ban on "cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment" that can be disregarded if Bush deems it necessary to do so in order to protect Americans from terrorist attacks
  • The ongoing CIA leak investigation regarding the possibly illegal revelation of former CIA operative Valerie Plame's identity, including the status of White House senior adviser Karl Rove and the indictment of former vice presidential chief of staff I. Lewis "Scooter" Libby on obstruction of justice and perjury charges
  • Vice President Dick Cheney's disputed claim during a February 15 interview with Fox News Washington managing editor Brit Hume that he has the authority to unilaterally declassify information

Vargas, however, did manage to ask about possible weddings for his daughters ("Now, I have to ask you because both of them are young women who are very attractive. ... Any chances of a White House wedding for either of them, do you think?"), the experience of living in the White House ("Does it feel like home, the White House?"), and existential questions ("You hold the most powerful position in the world, truly. What do you think you were put on this Earth to do?"):

VARGAS: Now, I have to ask you because both of them are young women who are very attractive.

BUSH: Mm-hmm.

VARGAS: Any chances of a White House wedding for either of them, do you think?

BUSH: All I can tell you is this, if a suitor shows up and asks for their hand, he's going to get to come here to the Oval Office and give me an explanation.

VARGAS: Oh, boy.

BUSH: Yeah.

VARGAS: I don't envy that young man.

BUSH: I know.

VARGAS: I have to tell you.

BUSH: They -- I -- look, whoever --

VARGAS: Do you have compassion for the people that they do date, and --

BUSH: No.

VARGAS: No? Okay. Well, that settled it.

BUSH: I don't have compassion.

VARGAS: I wanted to ask you very quickly how the vice president's doing. A lot of people thought he looked a little shaken when he appeared in public after the hunting accident.

BUSH: Yeah.

VARGAS: Is he doing okay, now?

BUSH: He is. Yeah. He was shaken. He came in the Oval, here, just he and I. I said, "Dick, this got you, didn't it?" And he said, "It sure did." I said, "Well, you know, if you feel like it, you ought to share it with the American people." And he did.

VARGAS: You've lived here now five years.

BUSH: I have.

VARGAS: Does it feel like home, the White House?

BUSH: You know, Texas is home for me.

VARGAS: Mm-hmm.

BUSH: And it's -- here -- come on over here. I'll show you some, some of the beautiful sights. But Texas is home.

VARGAS: Mmm, it smells good out here.

BUSH: You know -- look, home is where that -- where you're comfortable, as well. And, you know, in our case, home is where you find -- where I, at least in my case, home is where I find love.

VARGAS: Mm-hmm.

BUSH: And I find love where my family is. And so, we -- we live up there on the second floor.

VARGAS: Mm-hmm.

BUSH: And it's -- I can remember visiting mother and dad here. And it felt like I was spending the night in a museum, which is not home.

VARGAS: Does it still, does it still feel like that?

BUSH: And it feels different. One of the reasons I'm standing here, I'm convinced, is because my dad gave me a great gift, which is unconditional love.

VARGAS: Hmm.

BUSH: And when you get unconditional love from somebody you care about and you love, it -- it -- it -- it gives you confidence to take risk.

VARGAS: You hold the most powerful position in the world, truly. But what do you think you were put on this Earth to do?

BUSH: Well, that's a really interesting question. I think, first is to honor my family.

VARGAS: Mm-hmm.

BUSH: Family's a really important part of civilization. And honor my mother and dad. And honor my role as a dad. History will prove whether or not my presidency has been an agent for peace.

VARGAS: Mm-hmm.

BUSH: And that's what I want it to be. I want it to be said that George W. Bush defended America, and at the same time, laid what I've called the foundations for peace.

Posted In
National Security & Foreign Policy
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ABC
Person
Elizabeth Vargas
Show/Publication
ABC World News Tonight
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