Chris Matthews had former White House Press Secretary Ari Fleischer on for a lengthy interview tonight on the matter of Scott McClellan's tell-all, What Happened, and while the interview never boiled over into the sort of shouty-headed highlight reel that viewers of Hardball secretly and masochistically crave, it was nevertheless packed with a cornucopia of awkward highlights. Of special note is the moment where Fleischer discusses how he felt "Scott is on justifiable grounds feeling that he was misled [on the Iraq war] by a couple staffers." That pair of staffers, by the way? Uhm...Karl Rove and Scooter Libby! Maybe you've heard of them?
Also, you can have fun watching Fleischer use his larynx, lips, palate and mouth to form TRADEMARKED WHITE HOUSE TALKING POINTS on McClellan, and track how much time it takes for Matthews to catch him out on it. He does, too...eventually. Also, Ari said a whole bunch of different stuff to Norah O'Donnell that he never thought Chris Matthews would call him out on. And, apparently, Chris Matthews has retained all of his memories of how the White House works whereas Fleischer has had them surgically removed so as to avoid spilling the beans on his many, many crimes. Still, Fleischer does say that "people should read" McClellan's book, so look for that quote on the back cover of the next print run!
MATTHEWS: Let's go now to Ari Fleischer who was President Bush's White House Press Secretary. Thanks for holding on here. David makes the point that there is a separation between policy maker and those who have to sell it to the public and present it to the public. The role you played in that primary function all those years. Is that correct? Is it true that there is a separation between them? so you wouldn't know the motivating force of this war?
FLEISCHER: Well, if you think that the press secretary sits in on the NSC meetings where they're looking at military plans, no press secretary --
MATTHEWS: I'm talking about the motivating force, not the details. Did you feel you knew why we were fighting the war in Iraq? When you were a spokesman for the president?
FLEISCHER: Sure. Absolutely.
MATTHEWS: Would Scott McClellan know why we are fighting the war?
FLEISCHER: Let me answer. I was press secretary when that took place. Scott was my deputy. I sat in on the meetings, the international summit meetings where the president was explaining to foreign leaders what he was thinking, what the future might hold. I heard all that firsthand. I had a very good understanding of what the president was doing. What troubles me about this book, and Scott's allegations, is as my deputy. I never once heard Scott privately come to me, who helped brief me for the briefings I gave, and say he had any misgivings or any do you think about it.
MATTHEWS: But he is free to speak. He is in a different role now. He can speak the truth. He is not an agent now. Isn't that a difference?
FLEISCHER: It could be but I find it inconsistent.
MATTHEWS: Well of course it's inconsistent because if he said this when he was there, he would be fired.
FLEISCHER: No. If he had come to me and harbored doubts...he would also help me prep for the briefing and he would say tone this down. Don't say that. He never did that.
MATTHEWS: Let me get to the point David Gregory raised. Was Scott McClellan in a position to take a judgment as to the true motivating force of this war? Was he close enough to the principals, the president, the vice president, the top deputies to know why they were fighting this war?
FLEISCHER: Well, I think that Scott knew the reason was because Saddam, we were told, had weapons of mass destruction.
MATTHEWS: But he said that's not the reason you're fighting the war.
FLEISCHER: That was what we all said.
MATTHEWS: Is that what you believe?
FLEISCHER: Chris, I don't think there is any question. If the CIA did not tell us that he had weapons of mass destruction.
MATTHEWS: No. Is that what you believe the war was fought?
MATTHEWS: Let me ask you about this whole question of the vice president's role. I watched you on earlier broadcast on MSNBC, the president. And by the way, the book really doesn't very, point to the president but it does include the vice president on three separate references where it said he oversaw the effort to discredit Joe Wilson and his wife in their role as critics of the war. Is that true?
FLEISCHER: I wasn't there at that time. So I can't speak to that. I do think that Scott is on justifiable grounds feeling that he was misled in that section of the book by a couple staffers, particularly. But i don't think --
MATTHEWS: By Scooter and by Karl.
FLEISCHER: That's correct. But I don't think that gives Scott license to go after the president.
MATTHEWS: How about the vice president? I know this is trickier business. But three different times. Let me read these. "Under the cloak of anonymity, the vice president and trusted aide Scooter Libby soon began an effort to discredit Wilson with selected journalists." Let me read you another. This is over and over. "To defend itself against accusation of a deliberately dishonest, deliberate dishonesty in the case for the war, leveled by Joe Wilson. Vice President Cheney and his staff were leading a White House effort to discredit Joe Wilson himself." And again, later in the book, "A larger campaign led by the vice president to discredit Wilson publicly. And there by" -- is that your assessment? The vice president was Scooter's boss? That Scooter was doing the work of the vice president?
FLEISCHER: I wasn't there at the time. I don't think it would be responsible to answer that question about what took place on the inside with that allegation. I couldn't tell you that.
MATTHEWS: Knowing how the White House worked, when I worked there years ago, the chief of staff to the vice president got access to all the paper flow going to the president. And including the State of the Union. Certainly the State of the Union. The question of the "sixteen words." The questions about his overlying responsibility for intelligence gathering. I mean, it seems to me, you would know the role of the vice president in this regard. You would know his institutional role having worked there. The vice president was the chief of intelligence. He was G-2 as they say in the military, he was the president's chief intelligence guy. And he was also in charge of making the case for the war.
FLEISCHER: When your filibuster is over...
MATTHEWS: You don't have to be sarcastic.
FLEISCHER: Let me get into it. I think it would be irresponsible for someone who was not there to answer that specific question. I do think that on the things that I was there for, Scott has said things about manipulation of intelligence. To lead to an unjust war. About manipulation, propaganda. This is where I very strongly disagree with Scott. It doesn't even sound like the Scott that I know. And if he had thought these things, I would have hoped he would have come to me privately and express some doubt. I never saw any evidence of that.
MATTHEWS: He said that he in the book, I don't know him. You know him. He was your deputy. He said in the book that he came to this understanding over time. That he didn't fully grasp the situation or the motivations of this war while there. But after thinking about it, or whatever, surmising it, whatever, he came to the conclusion that the war was fought under dishonest purposes. That in fact, it wasn't about WMD. It was about this effort to spread democracy by coercion in the Middle East. That that was the driving dream of the president.
FLEISCHER: I'm sorry to say, I think for Scott, it was a lot of time. Because one year ago, Scott was still giving interviews on Bill Maher, of all places, where he was defending the president and defending the war. So something more recently changed that has led Scott to these conclusions. And I had breakfast with Scott about a year and a half ago. He told me the book would be a very favorable book for the president. Less so for Karl Rove, he told me, but a favorable book for the president. Something more recently changed.
MATTHEWS: Do you believe that Scooter Libby was justly convicted on the charges he was convicted of? That's another point in the book.
FLEISCHER: I do.
MATTHEWS: Because you believe he did lie under oath and he obstructed justice. You believe that.
FLEISCHER: I do.
MATTHEWS: Do you believe he did it at the behest of the vice president or did it on his own?
FLEISCHER: I don't know and I wouldn't try to guess a question like that.
MATTHEWS: Does the vice president today play a major role in the white house? I described, he described. Is the vice president extraordinarily influential over issues of intelligence, war, and peace?
FLEISCHER: Chris, if you're trying to get me back in that same question, I'm not going to do something that I think is irresponsible, which is to answer a specific question, a leading question about, trying --
MATTHEWS: But earlier this afternoon, you excluded the vice president from your denial when you said the president himself wasn't nailed. Did the vice president, Scooter Libby, you put them in a separate category.
FLEISCHER: But I think we've all learned that the facts pertaining to Karl and Scooter Libby...
MATTHEWS: And the vice president.
FLEISCHER: We don't know that about the vice president.
MATTHEWS: Earlier with Norah today, you left the vice president in that group.
FLEISCHER: No, I left them off.
MATTHEWS: You left the president off.
FLEISCHER: That's correct, too.
MATTHEWS: Which is it? The president and vice president were both excluded, or just the president.
FLEISCHER: Norah read to me a passage in which she said that Scott was saying the president deliberately deceived him. If you keep reading, Scott made it clear --
MATTHEWS: I accept that assessment in that reading of it. But you put the president in the same penumbra of not being involved as the vice president.
FLEISCHER: I just continued with what Scott wrote. It was a half a quote. And I filled out the rest will.
MATTHEWS: Is this a story of revelation or betrayal?
FLEISCHER: I'm not going to use words like that about Scott McClellan. He was my deputy.
MATTHEWS: The White House is putting out words like puzzled. They don't know him. You don't know him.
FLEISCHER: I don't think this sounds like Scott. My point here is that this is not, it doesn't sound like Scott McClellan. And if Scott harbored these doubts, if he had any nagging questions inside him, the principled thing to do would have been not to accept the press secretary job. I find this book myself, to be puzzling. I think there is a lot --
MATTHEWS: That's the White House talking point, Ari. You're using the word puzzling. That is White House talking point.
FLEISCHER: Chris I just agreed with what Dana said. What's wrong with agreeing with what somebody says? It's an accurate observation. I think it shouldn't surprise you that people might agree.
MATTHEWS: The exact lingo you're using.
FLEISCHER: You said it and I agreed with it.
MATTHEWS: I find that there is an amazing synchronicity of reaction that sounds like it's regimental.
FLEISCHER: I just copied what you said and what Dana said.
MATTHEWS: So there is no value in this book.
FLEISCHER: No. I think people should read it. They should buy it if they want to and come to their own conclusions. I'm going to read it, I told Scott that yesterday when I spoke to him. I'm looking forward to seeing it in its entirety, in full context. There is a lot, I can tell you already, I disagree with and I disagree strongly with. It does not sound like anything that Scott harbored or thought about privately or had any shadow of a doubt privately. When he took podium, nobody thought that Scott didn't believe the things he was saying. So on the one hand he said it then and now he's saying the opposite now.
MATTHEWS: Well apparently, he's changed his mind. Great having you on. Thank you for taking the time.