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Matt Lauer Gets Combative with Karl Rove on Today

In the final and easily most combative portion of Matt Lauer's three-part exclusive interview with Karl Rove, the Today co-anchor assaulted the former White House advisor, on Tuesday's Today, with accusatory charges on the run-up to the war in Iraq to the handling of Hurricane Katrina, to his role in the CIA leak scandal. The most volatile moments came during the Iraq and Katrina topics where Lauer's line of questioning began with reading a harsh line from a Rove critic, usually one of his media colleagues from the Washington Post, to Rove, as seen in the following heated exchanges from the March 9 Today show: [audio available here]

MATT LAUER: The book only comes out today. Already the critics have gotten a hold of it. And some are saying this is 500 pages of you rewriting history, that this is putting the best possible spin on some very controversial episodes. Dana Milbank, who wrote about the Bush White House for the Washington Post writes "That business about President George Bush misleading the nation about Iraq? Didn't happen."

[On screen graphic: "That business about President George W. Bush misleading the nation about Iraq? Didn't happen....Condoning torture? Wrong!...Rove had two-and-a-half years to reflect on what turned Bush into the least popular president in modern history. Yet Bush's Brain is still in the war room."]

KARL ROVE: Well let's stop right there.

LAUER: Go ahead.

ROVE: Let's stop right there. He said one sentence. I devote an entire chapter to showing that Bush did not lie about Iraq. In fact, I quote Democrats. There were 110 Democrats who voted for the Iraq war resolution. 67 of those Democrats, including John Kerry, John Edwards, Hillary Clinton, on the floor of the Congress said Iraq had weapons of mass destruction. So, he may be able to dismiss it in one snarky line, but I have, I have, I have the facts in here.

LAUER: What you write in the book is that the President, President Bush, would not have invaded Iraq if he had known there were no weapons of mass destruction. And what you write is-

ROVE: Yeah.

LAUER: "Would the Iraq war have occurred without WMD? I doubt it. Congress was very unlikely to have supported the use-of-force resolution without the threat of WMD." But since the war Karl, you know so many people have come forward saying there was intelligence, there was intelligence pointing that Saddam did have weapons of mass destruction, but there was also intelligence pointing in the other direction and there were voices of dissent, and those voices were ignored so the President could make his case.

ROVE: Look the intelligence was worldwide agreed that he had WMD. That he had ignored 14 resolutions following his surrender after Kuwait to account for his WMD. He had spent 12 years stiffing the international community. We now know because of two international reports by two international weapons inspectors, Kay and Doefler, that he was diverted tens of millions of dollars a year to Oil for, from the Oil for Food program to keep together the necessary dual-use-

LAUER: But agreement was not worldwide. Here's from, from Bob Woodward's book State of Denial. He writes in October of 2002, the top intelligence officer, Major General James "Spider" Marks, in charge of looking for WMD in Iraq looked at a list of 946 WMD sites and found quote, "He couldn't find with confidence there were any weapons of mass destruction or stockpiles at a single site."

ROVE: Well, that's one, but there were many intelligence...

LAUER: But you said it was worldwide. There was disagreement!

ROVE: There was, there was a consensus. It doesn't imply that everybody agreed, but it implies that the vas-, the preponderance of evidence and the majority of agreement was that there were WMD. And look, this is a bipartisan agreement. It was Al Gore and Bill Clinton, as well as Republicans who said he had WMD. And look...

LAUER: Even former British Prime Minister Tony Blair in a memo in 2002 wrote, quote, "President Bush had made up his mind to take military action even if the timing was not yet decided, but the case was thin."

ROVE: Well, he agreed with the decision. And again, the British intelligence also believed that he had WMD. In fact, again, it's a worldwide consensus. You can go back and try and rewrite history, but at that moment, we as a nation were faced with the belief that he had WMD, that he was a threat to the stability of the region, and in the aftermath of 9/11, the calculus changed, and it was, I repeat, a bipartisan agreement.

LAUER: Did, was President, you say the President didn't-

ROVE: And so if the President lied, if President Bush lied then President Clinton lied and Senator Clinton lied, Senator Kerry lied, Senator, Senator Edwards lied, Senator Kerry, Senator Kennedy lied.

LAUER: Did the President share all of the information with the American public, all the intelligence, all he dissenting voices? Because if you go back to your assertion that Congress wouldn't have voted for the use-of-force resolution without the threat of WMD, you don't have to be too big a cynic to say, well of course they beat the drums about WMD.

ROVE: Well, this will be surprising to you. The President was restrained. The President said, "I don't, you know, if there are things that we don't have confidence in, we're not gonna say 'em." In fact, you know, Secretary Powell, for example, went out to the CIA to review the evidence for several days, literally 24 hours a day, talking to the experts, reviewing the evidence to come to his own conclusion. The President encouraged that kind of review. We made the information available to Congress. Congress had access to that intelligence as well.

LAUER: You write in the book that the biggest, one of the biggest mistakes you think you made was not staying on the offensive against the critics of President Bush after this thing started to fall apart. So, the mistake wasn't saying, "Hey, we made a mistake, we got bad intelligence or we acted on the wrong intelligence," you were worried more about the political damage to the President?

ROVE: No what I was worried about was this, and let's be clear about what it was in the book that I talked about, and that is that in July of 2003, on one day, Senator Ted Kennedy goes out and says Bush lied about WMD. This is a man who two days after the vote - which he voted against the Iraq war resolution - nonetheless, went out and made a speech saying Iraq has WMD, there are other ways besides war that we can use to constrain that. The same day, Senator Tom Daschle, leader of the Senate Democrats, went out and said the President is misleading the American people. The next day, Senator John Kerry and Senator John Edwards in separate appearances say the President misled the American people, and was lying about WMD. They're joined by Jane Harman. When you have five major Democrats in two days pick up the same line, which they know is incorrect, that Bush lied about WMD, it was a political attack aimed at the heart of the administration and we should have responded more than we did.

LAUER: Let me move on because we've got a lot to cover. Hurricane Katrina, by all accounts, the federal response, the federal government's response in the first couple of days, few days after Hurricane Katrina was a disaster, and there was that picture, Karl, of the President looking out the window of Air Force One, looking down at the flooded region, and, and it made him look terribly out of touch-

ROVE: Disconnected, disconnected.

LAUER: -with the tragedy on the ground. From the book, you write quote, "I am one of the people responsible for that mistake." When did you realize that PR-wise and image-wise for the President, it was a disaster?

ROVE: Well, I knew it was, I knew it was, look, let's put it in context. The President of the United States, if he had dropped into New Orleans that morning, would have discombobulated recovery efforts. They would have had to close the air space. We would have, there would have been, you know rather then, rather then a cargo plane coming in with, with rescue people it would have been President Bush.

LAUER: But that picture almost would have been, was worse than no picture.

ROVE: Well we should, we should have gone to Baton Rouge, which is where the governor was and where the emergency disaster center was, and that's where we should have gone.

LAUER: You also write in the book "We did not have the ability to get realtime information so did not realize the initial reports we were getting were wrong." This is the President of the United States.

ROVE: Sure.

LAUER: Did anyone at the White House turn on the TV? We had realtime information.

ROVE: Well you know what? The media did not have realtime information. For example, the media led people to believe that there were snipers. So, as a result, rescue personnel refused to go into some of the, some of the, some of the-

LAUER: But we showed the suffering though at some of these places.

ROVE: Let me finish, you showed, you know what? And that's the point is, is that you, for example, you didn't know about the suffering at the convention center until the government did, but the government should have known about it earlier. And that's one of the big reforms to come out of Katrina is that the federal government's now aimed at getting realtime information and not depending, as it has in past emergencies, for the state and local people to provide the information about what's going on, on the ground.

LAUER: Dan Bartlett said Katrina was quote politically "It was the final nail in the coffin." Do you agree with that?

ROVE: I'm not sure I agree it was a nail in a coffin, because I don't believe the Bush administration was by any means dead.

-Geoffrey Dickens is the senior news analyst at the Media Research Center.