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I was previously a constitutional law and civil rights litigator and am now a journalist. I am the author of three New York Times bestselling books -- "How Would a Patriot Act" (a critique of Bush executive power theories), "Tragic Legacy" (documenting the Bush legacy), and With Liberty and Justice for Some (critiquing America's two-tiered justice system and the collapse of the rule of law for its political and financial elites). My fifth book - No Place to Hide: Edward Snowden, the NSA and the US Surveillance State - will be released on April 29, 2014 by Holt/Metropolitan.

Friday, November 10, 2006

Extremely odd behavior from the Washington Post re: the President's Rumsfeld lie

(updated below - Update II)

It is now conclusively clear that President Bush lied last week, several days before the election, when he vowed definitively to reporters that Donald Rumsfeld would remain as Defense Secretary for the next two years. At the time he made that statement, he was deep into the process of replacing Rumsfeld, if not already finished, and the President knew that the statement he made about Rumsfeld was false at the time he made it. That is the definition of "lying."

There can be no reasonable dispute about this, since the President at his Press Conference not only admitted lying when he told the reporters that Rumsfeld would stay, but he even went on to explain his reasons for lying ("the reason why is I didn't want to inject a major decision about this war in the final days of a campaign. And so the only way to answer that question and to get you on to another question was to give you that answer"). The decision was clearly a fait accompli before the election, as the President himself said: "win or lose, Bob Gates was going to become the nominee."

The President's admission of lying was so glaring that even Byron York immediately described it as such (as did other conservatives such as James Joyner). So what are the consequences, the implications, the fallout? So far, virtually nothing, and the behavior of The Washington Post shows why that is the case:

As I noted in the post I wrote two days ago about the President's Rumsfeld lie, The Washington Post article which reported on the Press Conference, written by Michael Fletcher and Peter Baker, detailed the Rumsfeld lie and even described what the President did with unusual candor, i.e., that the President "appeared to acknowledge having misled reporters." It's so unusual to see a major newspaper accurately report on the President's dishonesty that I noticed and praised the Post's candor ("It's encouraging (although it should be commonplace) that the Washington Post is calling this what it is"). At the time, as I quoted in my post, this is what the Post article reported about the President's Rumsfeld explanation:

At his news conference, Bush called the election results a "thumping" but vowed to maintain his policy of refusing to pull U.S. troops out of Iraq "before the job is done." Bush indicated that he had made the decision to replace Rumsfeld before the elections, but he said he had not held a "final conversation" with the defense chief or talked to Gates at the time he told reporters in response to a question last week that Rumsfeld would be staying on.

Asked about that comment, Bush said he made it because "I didn't want to inject a major decision about this war in the final days of a campaign," Bush said. He appeared to acknowledge having misled reporters, saying, "And so the only way to answer that question and to get you onto another question was to give you that answer."

He added later, "Win or lose, Bob Gates was going to become the nominee.

But at some point, the Post fundamentally changed this article (without leaving any indication that it did so). Now, in that same Post article, the passage I quoted about the President's having acknowledged that he "misled reporters" is gone entirely -- just disappeared, deleted with no trace -- and instead one finds only this:

He said that he had begun to contemplate Rumsfeld's exit before the election -- even while he was publicly vowing that he would keep the defense secretary through the end of his term and insisting that polls forecasting Republican defeat were wrong. "I thought we were going to do fine yesterday," Bush insisted. "Shows what I know." But "win or lose, Bob Gates was going to become the nominee."

At some point, the Post changed what was the accurate reporting -- that Bush expressly acknowledged that he "misled" reporters because he had "indicated that he had made the decision to replace Rumsfeld before the elections" -- by claiming in the new version that he merely "contemplated" Rumsfeld's exit before the election. Worse, the Post deleted entirely the accurate statement that the President "appeared to acknowledge having misled reporters." (If one does a search of the Post for the deleted paragraphs, the article will still come up in the Post's search engine, but the entire passage is nowhere to be found in the article).

Ironically, the explanation for why this happened may be found in today's Howard Kurtz column, the whole point of which is to explore the unbelievably stupid question of whether Bush's lie about Rumsfeld was "on par with [meaning: as bad as] President Bill Clinton's hair-splitting defense in the Monica S. Lewinsky investigation that 'it all depends on what the definition of is is'"? In other words, was Bush's pre-election "untruth" about management of the Iraq war as bad as Clinton's lie about sex with Monica? In the course of pondering that idiocy (even quoting "experts" comparing the two lies), Kurtz says this:

Did the president of the United States make a rare admission on national television that he had told an untruth?

Or had he merely engaged in a dodge of the sort that is common in politics?

Journalists by nature shy from pinning the "liar" label on any political leader, but President Bush's acknowledgments that he had not been forthcoming about his plans to dump Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld have kicked up a fuss at the White House and sparked a debate about the limits of presidential evasion.

As Kurtz's own column illustrates, journalists most certainly do not "shy away from pinning the 'liar' label on any political leader." All of the wise and brave pundits and other Beltway luminaries -- one after the next -- fell all over themselves calling Bill Clinton a "liar" continuously because he claimed not to have had sex with Monica Lewinksy. In that instance, they were more than happy to use the word "liar" as clearly and freely as can be imagined.

Journalists "shy away" from pinning the "liar label" not -- as Kurtz claims -- "on any political leader," but on the specific political leaders who currently occupy the White House. And for proof of that, Kurtz need look no further than his own newspaper, which appears to have engaged in some sort of Stalinist-like purging of history by zapping out of existence the Post's accurate detailing of the President's Press Conference admission of lying.

So the President got caught lying to the American people, several days before an election, about a matter of unquestionable importance -- namely, who will manage our war in Iraq and, more broadly, will the President change how the war is being managed? And not even the President claims there was some national security "justification" for lying. It was a pure political calculus: "I didn't want to inject a major decision about this war in the final days of a campaign."

(And incidentally, this is not the first time Bush lied this way; last May, he assured reporters that Treasury Secretary John Snow was not leaving and specifically stated that Snow "has not talked to me about resignation," even though Snow had already told the President he was leaving and the decision to replace Snow had already been made and finalized). All Howie Kurtz can do is wonder whether this was as "on par with" the Greatest Evil Ever -- Bill Clinton's lie about Monica Lewinsky.

Why did The Washington Post delete the passage in its own article detailing how the President misled reporters when he answered their questions about Rumsfeld? Presidents simply do not have the right to lie to Americans about important matters of public concern, particularly before a major election. If we don't embrace and enforce that standard, what standard exists? And if newspapers like the Post are too afraid to detail dishonest statements that come from our highest political officials -- to the point where they publish such revelations only to then surreptitiously delete them -- what possible purpose do journalists serve?

UPDATE: It seems that some people (including certain bloggers) are missing the point of this post completely. The crux of the post is not about Bush's lie regarding Rumsfeld, but instead, is about how The Washington Post reported this lie, and then un-reported it. Some of the confusion may be my fault (although the post title, by itself, seems to make that sufficiently clear), but this comment from sysprog is highly clarifying and, in its own right, worth reading.

UPDATE II: Even Newt Gingrich recognizes that the President essentially acknowledged at his Press Conference that he lied about Rumsfeld, and Gingrich objects:

"We need candor, we need directness," said Gingrich, a potential 2008 presidential candidate."We need to understand the threats we faced with are so frightening and so real, the danger that we'll lose two to three American cities so great, that we cannot play games with each other, cannot manipulate each other, we have to have an open and honest dialogue, and I found yesterday's staments at the press conference frankly very disturbing."

He condemned Bush's admission that in making last week's statement about Rumsfeld, he had known he was being misleading.

"It's inappropriate to cleverly come out the day after an election to do something we were told before the election would not be done," Gingrich said. "I think the timing was exactly backwards and I hope the President will rethink how he engages the American people and how he communicates with candor."

Gingrich has all kinds of politically self-interested motives for trying to distance himself this way from this increasingly and unprecedentedly despised President, but he is right about what the President did. If Byron York, James Joyner and Newt Gingrich can all recognize and say that the President admitted to lying at his Press Conference, why did The Washington Post delete that passage and deprive its readers of that knowledge?

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