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THE SITUATION ROOM

President Bush Grants Surprise News Conference; Gore's Possible Presidential Future; Bush Attempts To Seize Back Control Through Words And Actions; Some In Administration Blame Media For Falling Public Support Of President Bush's Iraq Policy; Paper Says Hillary Clinton Has Final Word Over What Bill Clinton Does And Says In Public

Aired March 21, 2006 - 16:00   ET

THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.


WOLF BLITZER, CNN ANCHOR: Thanks very much, Ali. And to our viewers you are in THE SITUATION ROOM, where new pictures and information from around the world are arriving all the time.
Standing by, CNN reporters across the United States and around the world to bring you today's top stories.

Happening now, striking new hints of a possible time frame for the U.S. mission in Iraq. President Bush suggests a complete troop pull-out isn't likely until he's out of the White House. It's 4:00 p.m. here in Washington where Mr. Bush held a surprise news conference today.

This hour, all the substance, the style and the politics of the president's Q&A session. He touched on impeachment talk, domestic spying, his poll numbers and his problems with the Congress. Did he help himself?

And the Al Gore obsession, are liberal Democrats refusing to accept a Goreless presidential race in 2008. And how does Hillary Clinton's possible candidacy figure in? I'm Wolf Blitzer, you're in THE SITUATION ROOM.

This hour reviews are still coming in on President Bush's surprise performance this morning in his ongoing campaign to try to bolster support for his Iraq policies. A presidential news conference is a powerful PR tool that Mr. Bush has used sparingly over the years. Today he tried to use it to his advantage at a rocky time for the Iraqi mission in his presidency. Ed Henry standing by with more. Let's go first to Kathleen Koch at the White House with what the president said today.

KATHLEEN KOCH, CNN WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: Wolf, a senior administration official told me this morning that President Bush likes these sorts of frank exchanges. He hasn't done one since January and he was ready for another. But it's unclear whether or not it will be enough time impact public perception of an increasingly unpopular war.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

GEORGE W. BUSH, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: I'm optimistic we'll succeed, if not, I'd pull our troops out. KOCH (voice-over): The last minute press conference was part of a White House campaign to reassure skeptical Americans about the war in Iraq, but one exchange implied the conflict will not end any time soon.

QUESTION: Will there come a day when there will be no more American forces in Iraq?

BUSH: That, of course, is an objective. And that will be decide by future presidents and future governments of Iraq.

QUESTION: So it won't happen on your watch?

BUSH: You mean a complete withdrawal? That's a timetable, you know. I can only tell you that I'll make decisions on force levels based on what the commanders on the ground say.

KOCH: Even if the conflict outlasts his presidency, Mr. Bush insists it has not degraded into a civil war. He backed his embattled Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld and admitted all the advice he'd gotten on the war has panned out.

BUSH: I don't believe he should resign. I think he's done a fine job of not only conducting two battles, Afghanistan and Iraq, but also transforming our military, which has been a very difficult job inside the Pentagon. Listen, every war plan looks good on paper until you meet the enemy.

KOCH: The president acknowledged the political capital he garnered with his 2004 election victory is running low.

BUSH: I would say I'm spending that capital on the war.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

KOCH: President Bush also took questions on a wide variety of subjects, immigration reform, Iran, rising interest rates, domestic surveillance program, and he also expressed personal frustration with those roughly 11,000 FEMA trailers sitting in Arkansas instead of providing shelter for people who need them on the Gulf Coast.

The president said he going to be speaking with, or had spoken with, Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff about that, asked him to get to the bottom of it, find out what was going on and do something with them -- Wolf.

BLITZER: Kathleen, thanks very much.

Some other hot political topics came up during the president's news conference. He was asked about Senator Russ Feingold's resolution to censure him for authorizing wiretaps without court warrants.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

BUSH: You think that during these difficult times, and they are difficult when we're at war, American people expect there to be an honest and open debate without needless partisanship. That's how I view it.

I did notice that nobody from the Democrat party has actually stood up and called for actually getting ready terrorist surveillance program. If that's what they believe. If people in the party believe that, they ought to stand up and say it. They ought to stand up and say the tools we're using to protect the American people shouldn't be used.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

BLITZER: Senator Feingold fired back just a short while ago, accusing the president of playing politics by implying that Democrats don't want to wiretap terrorists. Adding to the partisan heat, the Republicans party is running a new radio ad in Feingold's home state of Wisconsin, accusing the senator of being more interested in censuring the president than in protecting freedom.

Another sensitive subject for the Bush White House, could the long serving staff use an injection of some new blood? Here's what the president said about the advice he's been getting from some Republicans.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

BUSH: This isn't the first time during these five and a half years that people have felt comfortable about standing up and telling me what to do. That's OK. I take it all in and appreciate the spirit in which it's delivered. Most of the time.

But no, I'm satisfied with the people I've surrounded myself with. We've been a remarkably stable administration, and I think that's good for the country.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

BLITZER: Let's go to Capitol Hill. Many lawmakers of both parties were listening very closely to what the president said today about his own political standing and about his election year relationship with the Congress. Our congressional correspondent Ed Henry has more on this part of the story. Ed?

ED HENRY, CNN CONGRESSIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Wolf, the president knows he's not going to change the minds of Democrats who immediately charge this is the same old rosy rhetoric they've heard before, but the president did try to change some minds on the Republican side. Republicans who are growing weary about the upcoming election by saying calm down, a lot can change between now and November.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

HENRY (voice-over): The president acknowledged Republicans are uneasy about the midterm elections but reminded everyone he's beaten the odds before. BUSH: Remember '02 before the elections, a certain nervousness, there was a lot of people in Congress wasn't sure I was going to make it in '04 and whether or not I would drag the ticket down.

HENRY: But the difference between then and now is the president's poll numbers, especially on Iraq, have plummeted. Emboldening Democrats.

SEN. JOE BIDEN (D), DELAWARE: There's really no disagreement. The disagreement is between everybody and Rumsfeld. Everybody and Cheney. Everybody and the president. Everybody and Karl Rove. That's where the disagreement is.

HENRY: And even as the president counseled patience at his White House press conference, a key Republican was in Baghdad delivering a stern message to Iraqi Prime Minister Ibrahim al Jaafari.

Senator John Warner said he told the prime minister, in forceful terms, Iraqi officials have to move quicker to form a unity government.

SEN. JOHN WARNER (R-VA), ARMED SERVICES CHMN.: So let us not disappoint the people, because I can assure you that people in the United States, if it does not happen, a unified government, expeditiously, will rise up and speak with a very loud voice.

HENRY: Back home on the campaign trail, Republicans are keeping their distance from the White House. The president's Iraq speech in Ohio on Monday was not attended by Senator Mike DeWine, who is locked in a tight re-election.

And in New Jersey, Vice President Cheney headlined a major fundraiser for Republican Senate candidate Tom Kean, Jr. But the candidate himself did not show up until after the vice president departed.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

HENRY: A spokeswoman for the Kean campaign told CNN there was, quote, no concerted effort to avoid taking a picture with the vice president last night. She explained that Kean is a state senator, he had to cast some votes in Trenton yesterday. It took him a long time, he got stuck in traffic in terms of trying to get to Newark for this fundraiser.

She said at one point, the candidate even got out of the car and starred running to the fundraiser, was perspiring as he arrived only to find out the vice president had left about ten minutes earlier. When asked why the vice president didn't stick around to see the candidate, the spokeswoman assumes that the vice president just needed to keep his schedule and get moving back to D.C.

BLITZER: The implication, Ed, and correct me if I'm wrong, the president yesterday gives this big speech, answers questions for an hour in Cleveland, Ohio. The Republican senator Mike DeWine is up for a tough re-election as you point out, doesn't attend this event. Is the implication that what, he doesn't want to be seen with Bush who is not necessarily all that popular in Ohio?

HENRY: That's right. Democrats jumping all over this thing, saying the vice president in New Jersey, the president and vice president's numbers approval ratings especially low in state like New Jersey. Also in Ohio, the Republican party overall has taken a beating there because of the scandals of the governor in addition to the president's low numbers.

Yes, so the implication is that they do not want to be seen standing next to the president and the vice president. But it is important to know that Tom Kean, Jr., is going to walk away with a lot of campaign money. So they're still willing to have the president and the vice president raise money for these candidates. They don't necessarily want to take pictures with them.

BLITZER: Ed, thanks very much. We'll have a lot more on the president's news conference including a testy exchange with veteran journalist Helen Thomas. And our Candy Crowley will assess the president's performance and why it matters. Helen Thomas will be live here in THE SITUATION ROOM.

A new political pronouncement for the man who lost to President Bush in 2000. Al Gore says he is not planning to run for president in 2008. Is there more to that statement than meets the eye. Let's bring in our senior political analyst, Bill Schneider.

WILLIAM SCHNEIDER, CNN SENIOR POLITICAL ANALYST: Wolf, one of the country's best-known Democrats took himself out of the running for '08 yesterday. Or did he?

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

SCHNEIDER: Civil war hero William Tecumseh Sherman is said to have made the definitive Shermanesque statement. "If nominated, I will not run. If elected, I will not serve."

By the standard, Al Gore's statement in Tennessee Monday was not Shermanesque.

AL GORE, FORMER VICE PRESIDENT: I'm not planning to be a candidate again.

SCHNEIDER: Not planning? That's not definitive. If there's a ground swell for Gore, he might reconsider. A groundswell for Gore, is that possible?

In the year since 2000, the former vice president has been busy reinventing himself. He has developed a following among on-line liberal activists by being more and more outspoken in his anti-war, anti-Bush sentiments.

GORE: The president of the United States has been breaking the law, repeatedly and insistently.

SCHNEIDER: Gore's lecture on global warming, which sounds pretty dull, electrified the Sundance Film Festival and is being released as a feature film this spring. His Hollywood producer says...

LAWRENCE BENDER, FILM PRODUCER: ... He's strong, he doesn't equivocate, he's great on all the issues. And he's passionate, he's funny, and he's grounded.

SCHNEIDER: But is there room for Gore in the '08 Democratic race? There are three parts opening up in that drama, Hillary Clinton is one. Then there's the un-Hillary, a moderate alternative who can claim to be more electable. Right now, former Virginia Governor Mark Warner is a hot prospect for that role.

Then there's a part for the left alternative to Hillary. Many Hollywood liberals and on-line activists consider Hillary Clinton too moderate. They want a more outspoken choice like Senator Russ Feingold or maybe Al Gore.

Is Gore electable? His enthusiasts say he's already been elected, at least in principle in 2000.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

SCHNEIDER: Al Gore could play any of the three roles. He was once a moderate new Democrat. He has now moved to the left. And he has as much claim as Hillary Clinton to be the bearer of the Clinton legacy -- Wolf.

BLITZER: Bill Schneider reporting, thanks very much, Bill for that.

For more on this story, let's bring in our Internet reporter Jacki Schechner. What are you picking up on-line, Jacki?

JACKI SCHECHNER, CNN INTERNET REPORTER: Well, Wolf, every couple of months or so, Daily Hos is a top liberal blog -- does a straw poll to find out where the progressive blogosophere would stand if the presidential election were held tomorrow, at least the Democratic primary.

And you can see that Russ Feingold is in the lead right now with 48 percent of this very unscientific vote. Wesley Clark coming in second and Warner, Mark Warner coming in third.

A lot of people wondering if that's because the censure resolution on the table right now. But Feingold did jump ahead back in January. It's interesting to note where Hillary Clinton comes in. She comes in just below other or no freaking clue. Other, a lot of people saying, meaning Al Gore, even though he said he's not going to run.

As for Wesley Clark, he is ramping up. He just launched what is called a Podcast, an audio cast. He's no stranger to the power of the Internet. Just take a quick listen to what this Podcast sounds like. Whoops, let me put that down so you can hear it.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

WESLEY CLARK, POTENTIAL PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: Thanks for joining us today. I believe that as citizens we've got a duty to...

(END VIDEO CLIP)

SCHECHNER: ... All right, that's going to do it. Wolf, you can get an idea of where they stand right now.

BLITZER: We certainly do. Thanks very much, Jacki, for that. And remember, you're in THE SITUATION ROOM, where political news is arriving all the time. CNN, America's campaign headquarters.

Let's up to New York, Jack Cafferty standing by with "The Cafferty File." Jack?

JACK CAFFERTY, CNN ANCHOR: President Bush did something today that he hasn't done for three years. He called on long-time White House correspondent Helen Thomas to ask a question.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

HELEN THOMAS, WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: I'd like to ask you, Mr. President. Your decision to invade Iraq has caused the deaths of thousands of Americans and Iraqis, ruined Americans and Iraqis for a lifetime.

Every reason given, publicly at least, has turned out not to be true. My question is why did you really want to go to war, from the moment you stepped into the White House? From your cabinet, former cabinet officers, intelligence people and so forth? What was your real reason? You have said, it wasn't oil, quest for oil. It hasn't been Israel or anything else. What was it?

(END VIDEO CLIP)

CAFFERTY: That's why he hasn't called on her for three years. The president said that assuming he wanted to go to war was wrong, that no president wants war. He went on to explain how September 11th changed his attitude about defending this country.

So here's the question, what do you think President Bush's reason for going to war was? E-mail us at caffertyfile@CNN.com or go to CNN.com/CaffertyFile -- Wolf.

BLITZER: Get ready, Jack, you're going to be flooded with a lot of e-mail on this question. And we'll get the answers later this hour.

Coming up, she asked the president a tough question. We just heard it. I'm going to be asking her a few tough questions as well. The veteran correspondent Helen Thomas, she'll join us here in THE SITUATION ROOM. That's coming up live.

Plus, a police station stormed by insurgents in Iraq. We're following fresh violence as year four of the U.S. mission begins to unfold.

And later, is there fallout between the Clintons after the Dubai port deal? We're investigating a report about their communication strategy in the wake of the ports storm. Stay with us. You're in THE SITUATION ROOM.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BLITZER: There she is, Zain Verjee, she's joining us from the CNN global headquarters with some other news making headlines, including the latest in Iraq. What is going on, Zain?

ZAIN VERJEE, CNN ANCHOR: Wolf, in Diyala Province in Iraq, insurgents armed with rocket grenades and machine guns stormed a police station today. They set loose more than two dozen detainees. The U.S. military says U.S. and Iraqi troops responded to the attack. Local officials says at least 18 police officers and one insurgent were killed. Nine people were injured, including a U.S. soldier and seven Iraqi police.

A military jury has found a U.S. army dog handler guilty of abusing detainees at Iraq's Abu Ghraib prison. Sergeant Michael Smith was found guilty of maltreatment, dereliction of duty, and an indecent act with another under the uniform code of military justice. Most the charges involved him threatening prisoners with his unmuzzled military dog. Smith faces eight years in prison when he's sentenced tomorrow.

Iran's supreme leader is giving the green light to propose talks between Iran and the U.S. on Iraq. Ayatollah Ali Khomeini says that he approves of the discussions, but adds that the U.S. better not try to, quote, "bully Iran." This is the first confirmation that Khomeini, who basically holds the final say on state matters in Iran, favors the talks.

And as you saw last hour on CNN, prosecutors in Marion County, Florida, are dropping charges against a former teacher accused of having sex with a 14-year-old student. The decision means Debra Lafave won't go to trial and it means that her alleged victim won't have to testify. Prosecutors say they wanted to avoid having to subject the teen to a trial, basically for his emotional well being. Lafave faces three years of house arrest after pleading guilty in Hillsborough County to having sex with a boy -- Wolf.

BLITZER: Zain, thank you very much for that.

Up next, we'll have much more on our top story, the president's news conference. Our Candy Crowley is standing by. She'll tell us it's not just a matter of what the president said, but how he said it.

Plus, the White House motive behind the president's news conference, is it a smart strategy? I'll ask Paul Begala and J.C. Watts. They're standing by for our "Strategy Session."

Stick around. You're in THE SITUATION ROOM.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BLITZER: Now back to our lead story, the president's surprise news conference today. Mr. Bush has said he's not big on self- analysis or psychobabble, as he calls it, but we reporters have found you can learn a lot just by watching the president in action.

That's especially true for our senior political correspondent Candy Crowley, who spent a lot of time covering this president over these years. Candy, what are you discerning?

CANDY CROWLEY, CNN SENIOR POLITICAL CORRESPONDENT: Wolf, there's no mistaking that the president is in a full court press on Iraq policy. It's an effort really to seize back control through words and through actions both big and small.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

BUSH: Good morning.

CROWLEY (voice-over): Sometimes, and this is one of those times, there is substance to the style. A president in freefall in the polls needs to be and look and sound in charge.

BUSH: And I'm never going to forget the vow I made to the American people.

CROWLEY: And a president depicted as isolated from criticism needs to seek it out.

HELEN THOMAS, REPORTER: You'll be sorry.

CROWLEY: Veteran newswoman Helen Thomas had not been called on in three years.

BUSH: No, hold on for a second, please. Excuse me. Excuse me. No president wants war. Everything you may have heard is that, but it's just simply not true.

CROWLEY: He's begun to do a lot more of this lately, going before not entirely friendly audiences, with not entirely scripted questions, trying to counter the image of a president detached from reality, allergic to challenge. The White House says the president is best in these public forums, and yesterday in Cleveland he responded to the criticism and showed some game.

QUESTION: Mr. President, the Cleveland Hungarian community is planning a major event in Cleveland in October.

BUSH: You got to seize the moment, you know. I'm not sure what I'm doing in October. Put me down as a maybe. .

CROWLEY: But at today's news conference, for all the dogged determination and the attempted camaraderie, and the relaxed body language, the seemed both frustrated and dismissive of the forum.

BUSH: Let's see here. They've told me what to say -- David.

CROWLEY: There was a tension, a testiness from a president under siege.

BUSH: I'm going say it again, if I didn't believe we could succeed, I wouldn't be there. I wouldn't put those kids there.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

CROWLEY: The truth is, this is not a president who likes these news conferences. He is there because he has to be, using every forum and every tool at his disposal to convince an increasingly unconvinced public. No less than the war in Iraq and his legacy are at stake, and he's putting himself out there -- Wolf.

BLITZER: But he's actually in this informal sort of relaxed atmosphere -- as relaxed as it can be in the White House briefing room, he's pretty bantering, going back and forth with reporters. He even took a few shots at reporters, including a "New York Times" reporter.

CROWLEY: Absolutely. I mean, he's very good at zingers. He's good at jokes. He looks comfortable. He can be in command, but the strange thing is, Wolf, I saw that George Bush in 2000 when he was running for president, when he had to be out there, when every day was a news conference, so he's kind of in that groove.

And then, as you know, as things grew worse, the White House would put him in these forums where the questions were gosh, you're great, how great are you? So it's almost as though he got rusty.

You know, Ronald Reagan used to be the same way. They would sort of take him out of, you know, the give and take, and then when he first went back in, he was kind of tentative and it sort of built up this anxiousness.

Now that they've got him -- had him out since December really taking these questions, he's getting better at it. And he really is -- they believe he's good in this forum and he can be good in this forum and the fact of the matter is, it's a forum they have to use.

BLITZER: Candy, thanks very much. Candy Crowley is our senior political correspondent. And as you just saw in Candy's piece, Helen Thomas fired a tough question off at the president.

Coming up in the next hour, here in THE SITUATION ROOM, the veteran White House correspondent will join us live. She'll field some of my questions. That's coming up.

And President Bush defended Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld at today's news conference, but is that a smart strategy? I'll ask two of our experts. Paul Begala and J.C. Watts, they're standing by. Stay with us.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BLITZER: Welcome back. In our "Strategy Session" today, President Bush faces the White House press corps. Are his question and answer sessions effective in explaining his policies? Should he be holding more of them?

Joining us now are CNN political analyst, Democratic strategist Paul Begala, former Republican Congressman J.C. Watts. Here's a little excerpt of what the president said today about Iraq. Listen to this.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

BUSH: If I didn't believe we could succeed, I wouldn't be there. I wouldn't put those kids there. I meet with too many families whose lost a loved one to not be able to look them in the eye and say we're doing the right thing. And we are doing the right thing.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

BLITZER: Good strategy for the president to be having these Q&A sessions? Yesterday, he had a long one in Cleveland. Today, a long one in the White House briefing room?

PAUL BEGALA, CNN POLITICAL ANALYST: As a general matter, as you know, I'm all for presidents holding press conference. This president doesn't hold enough, so good for him. It helps to sharpen and focus his mind, his staff. It's always good for the president to hold news conference.

Having said that, he doesn't have a communications problem. He has a credibility problem. The speech in Cleveland is fine. The press conference today is fine. The problem is, we don't believe him.

In fact, one of the journalists frankly said that to him. He said, "You know, the American people no longer believe you." When you have a credibility problem, as he does -- It's not just my opinion. The CNN poll says a majority of Americans describe their president as no longer honest or trustworthy

Your solution is not to keep yakking. It's to change the facts on the ground. And what he keeps telling us, essentially, is this: "I'm not going to change my policy." And as long as he says that, the country is going to continue to oppose him.

BLITZER: What do you think?

J.C. WATTS (R), FORMER U.S. CONGRESSMAN: You know, Wolf, the president has been very consistent in his strategy and his position in the war. I said as far back as the State of the Union that I thought he need to do more of this. In times like these, you can't over- communicate. So I think meeting the president everyday and talking to the American people, I think that's a good thing.

He's in a situation kind of like the old football coach comes in at halftime and you're down and the players are thinking, "OK, what are we doing here? What's our strategy? What's the shake-up going to be?" When the coach goes to his office and doesn't say anything to the players, it leaves the players wondering what the heck is going on here.

So the more you can communicate to the troops out there in the trenches the more comfort it gives them. I don't think he has a credibility problem. I do believe that more of these type of things are needed.

BLITZER: Here's what Republican Congresswoman Heather Wilson of New Mexico said. "We need to assume that things are going to be very hard because when you do, you plan accordingly. I am always cautious about always seeing things in the best because war is not like that." A lot of nervous members of the House, especially, right now in some of the more vulnerable districts.

WATTS: Well, I hope people would understand, even members of Congress, that what's popular isn't always going to be right, and what's right isn't always going to be popular. I do believe being in Iraq, the fact that we're there, it is right thing to do. I think there's been a lot of progress made.

But if you're not out there talking about the progress, talking about the good things -- democratically held elections, women being able to vote for the first time, schools being built, hospitals being built, commerce is thriving. Those are good things. But if the American people don't know those things, then it leaves everybody in the dark.

BLITZER: Do you want to respond that?

BEGALA: Yes, I do. The problem is not the media. This is the new Republican Gumby (ph). "It's all the media's fault. It's Wolf Blitzer's." Well, no. It's not your fault. It's not CNN's fault. It's not the "New York Times'" fault.

They're reporting the -- in fact, my criticism of the media running up to this war, we were far too complacent in not asking the tough questions. That's part of how we got into this war. The press wasn't tough enough. And there's been some good scholarship on that.

The problem is the reality. And the reality is, he does have a credibility problem because he giving us this happy talk. And I think the Democrats also have a very good mantra now. If you watch, every Democrat today says the president is dangerously incompetent. He's dangerously incompetent. And the country agrees.

BLITZER: Here's what the president -- had a little comment today on the various people, mostly Democrats, calling on Rumsfeld to resign. I say mostly Democrats because a there are a few Republicans.

Dianne Feinstein, the latest, she's a moderate Democrat, from California. "Secretary Rumsfeld," she says, "is a very strong leader. And I don't believe he listens to many people. And that's a problem. It's time for him to go." Here's how the president responded today when asked about Rumsfeld leaving. Listen to this.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

BUSH: No, I don't believe he should be should resign. I think he's done a fine job of not only conducting two battles, Afghanistan and Iraq, but also transforming our military.

(END VIDEO CLIP) BLITZER: J.C. Watts, what about that strategy of hanging on and standing by Rumsfeld's side?

WATTS: Well, that's the president's call whether or not he wants Donald Rumsfeld to resign. It's his secretary of defense. I, too, believe that Donald Rumsfeld sometimes can be too arrogant for his own good. However, arrogance doesn't make you a bad secretary of defense. And I think what the president is doing here -- Rumsfeld knows the strategy, he knows the policy.

I, too, agree, Paul, that it is not the press's fault. But as I said earlier, I think the president should continue going before the press, talking about why Rumsfeld is the secretary of defense, talking about why we are in Iraq, talking about the good things that's happening there.

I don't think it's the president's fault. I think it's the White House's fault if they're not out there talking about the good things that's going on and the progress that's being made.

BEGALA: Here's the problem. The country wants change. They think we're in the wrong direction in Iraq. And the president keeps saying, "I'm not going to change."

There's this -- it's actually a pretty terrible movie. I stayed up late and watched it and got my wife mad at me. It's called "The Pope of Greenwich Village." Mickey Rourke and Daryl Hannah. Mickey Rourke is kind of want to be Mafia guy. And he get into this fight with his girlfriend Daryl Hannah, and she slaps him in the face. And he says, "Hit me again. See if I change."

That's Mr. Bush. "Hit me again. See if I change." OK? He's just not going to change. This is good for the Democrats. The only way we can get change is not by pressuring the president into firing Mr. Rumsfeld. It's by electing a Democratic Congress to make changes in policy.

And that's good for Democrats. If the president were to sort of bleed off some of that pressure for change, Republicans would be better off in the election. He's hurting his party right now.

WATTS: But you know what, Wolf? And, Paul, you would have to agree. This president has been very consistent from day one. He has been very livid about saying we need to go after the bad guy.

What I would like for the Democrats to say is, do you agree with the president eavesdropping to try and get the bad guy? Do you agree with the president fighting the war in Iraq as opposed to fighting it here? I mean, it's easy to say that we're against those things, but the good thing is the Democrats, they have no plan in order to counter that.

BLITZER: They say they want to do all that, but they want to do it legally.

WATTS: They want to do it legally? BLITZER: They want to do the surveillance, but they want to do it within the rules of the game.

BEGALA: Called me old-fashioned, but I believe Mr. Madison's masterpiece was right, which says the government cannot spy on you without a warrant. That's what Mr. Madison says in the Fourth Amendment.

WATTS: But would you say that if Osama bin Laden is calling me that...

BEGALA: Then we'll get a warrant just like that. You've got a higher class of friends than that, I know.

(CROSSTALK)

WATTS: Then why am I talking to Osama bin Laden? That's the point.

BLITZER: J.C., Paul, thanks very much.

Coming up, what's driving public anxiety about the U.S. mission in Iraq? Are news organizations to blame, as some Republicans are now claiming? We're going to look at the charges and the realities.

Also ahead, Susan Sarandon versus Hillary Clinton. Why does the actress have a beef with as far as the senator is concerned? You're in THE SITUATION ROOM.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BLITZER: As promised yesterday, we want to do a follow-up now on something Paul Begala said in an exchange with Torie Clarke yesterday in our strategy session. Paul charged that General Eric Shinseki was effectively relieved of duty as Army chief of staff for testifying under oath that the U.S. needed lots more troops to secure Iraq.

We promised to check the facts on that. And here's what we've come up with. This is what we know. General Shinseki served out his full four-year term as the Army chief of staff. But the defense secretary Donald Rumsfeld tapped a successor for Shinseki back in April of 2002, more than a year before his retirement.

That person didn't wind up taking the job, but such an early announcement was indeed embarrassing to Shinseki, and some say it wound up undercutting his clout inside the Pentagon.

Here's a critical point on the timing. The Pentagon was planning for Shinseki's retirement nearly a year before the general testified that several hundred thousand soldiers might be need in post-war Iraq. That testimony got a very quick response from the secretary, that would be Donald Rumsfeld, who charged that Shinseki's assessment was flat out wrong.

Rumsfeld says that suggestions, though, that Shinseki was fired are a myth. Our senior Pentagon correspondent Jamie McIntyre, who's done a lot of reporting on this story, says that Shinseki was certainly ostracized and criticized for his testimony about troop levels in Iraq. But Jamie says Shinseki was not fired. He wound up retiring after serving his full four-year term.

The Bush administration acknowledges the need for better public relations about the U.S. mission in Iraq. The president's news conference today was a key part of that. But White House officials do not agree with critics who say the president's policies are to blame. They see another culprit. Let's bring in our senior analyst, Jeff Greenfield, who's watching this -- Jeff.

JEFF GREENFIELD, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well, Wolf, yes? Why has public support for the president's handling of Iraq fallen so sharply? From some in the administration and from some of its supporters, the answer is the media.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

GREENFIELD: On "Face the Nation" Sunday, Vice President Dick Cheney said that the good news from Iraq has been obscured by the media focus on more dramatic events.

RICHARD CHENEY, VICE PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: There's a constant sort of perception, if you will, that's created because what's newsworthy is the car bomb in Baghdad; it's not all the work that went on that day in 15 other provinces in terms of making progress towards rebuilding Iraq.

GREENFIELD: In a Sunday op-ed piece in "The Washington Post," Defense Secretary Rumsfeld wrote that, "Fortunately, history is not made up of daily headline, blogs on Web sites, or the latest sensational attack."

BUSH: Good morning.

GREENFIELD: And in his press conference today, President Bush, while not criticizing the media, noted pointedly that the insurgents have press coverage clearly in mind.

BUSH: They're capable of blowing up innocent life so it ends up on your TV show.

GREENFIELD: And Bush left no doubt about the administration's key word about Iraq.

BUSH: Progress, progress, progress, progress in Iraq.

GREENFIELD: On the "Today Show" this morning, conservative commentator Laura Ingram went one step further.

LAURA INGRAM, CONSERVATIVE COMMENTATOR: To do a show from Iraq means to talk to the Iraqi military, to go out with the Iraqi military, to actually have a conversation with the people instead of reporting from hotel balconies about the latest IEDs going off.

GREENFIELD: The death of some 80 journalists in Iraq and the near-fatal wounding of ABC's Bob Woodruff might make that last point questionable. But what about the bigger issue? There is no doubt that the media are always drawn to visually compelling images and that there have been optimistic or at least hopeful assessments from columnists in the "Washington Post," and on blogs like Len Reynolds' Instapundit.

But consider, some of the bleaker assessments have come from conservative voices such as columnists George Will and Bill Buckley or military men like General Eaton, who trained Iraqi troops after the invasion and who called on Bush to fire Secretary Rumsfeld. And from General Bernard Traynor, whose new book charges that a whole series of false assumptions drove the Iraq policy.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

GREENFIELD: Now given the fact that the president's conservative base holds the media in, what we might call, minimum high regard, it probably makes good political sense to point to the media as a key source of Mr. Bush's difficulties.

But the more conservative voices and military voices raised strong objections to Bush's policies, my guess is the less effective that argument becomes -- Wolf.

BLITZER: Don't we always hear it? Whenever an administration, Democrat or Republican, finds themselves unpopular or in trouble, it's always the media's fault?

GREENFIELD: Yes, it's a very common resort. But I think it's fair to say that it tends these days to happen more in Republican administrations because for the last 30 or 40 years, conservatives and Republicans have tended to see the mainstream media in particular as biased towards liberals and their enemies. But you're absolutely right. Democrat or Republican, it's never their fault. It's our fault.

BLITZER: When Clinton was in trouble, you remember the vast right-wing conspiracy that then the first lady, Hillary Clinton, charged was out there, including the news media.

GREENFIELD: Yes. During the Monica affair, a lot of Clinton defenders thought that the media were piling on, were anxious to drive a president from office, had been just absorbed by the sexual scandal. So that's absolutely true. But I'll still come back, Wolf, to the point that I think ever since Goldwater and Spiro Agnew, it's been the liberal media that's been the target of Republican attacks.

BLITZER: Jeff Greenfield, thanks very much.

Let's go to our political radar this Tuesday. Two women's groups are breaking with the Democratic Party in Pennsylvania. They're backing little-known Senate Alan Sandals in the Democratic primary.

The political action committees for the Feminist Majority and the National Organization for Women say they support Sandals because he's a strong supporter of abortion rights. The leading Democratic candidate, Bob Casey, is an abortion opponent. He was recruited by the party to challenge Republican incumbent and fierce abortion foe Rick Santorum.

Actress Susan Sarandon is seen by many as the ultimate Hollywood liberal. And she's not happy -- guess what -- with Hillary Clinton. In "More" magazine that's out today, Sarandon calls Senator Clinton, and I'm quoting now, "a great disappointment." The actress goes on to say that she's bothered by the senator's shift to the center and her vote to authorize the Iraq war.

And we're checking attendance at the White House, especially in light of concerns that the staff is tired and overworked. Two senior administration officials tell CNN the White House chief of staff Andy Card called in sick today. We're told he has a high fever and the flu.

Many of Card's colleagues believe it's the first time he's called in sick since day one of the Bush administration more than five years ago. Andy Card, one of the hardest working guys over at the White House. We wish him a very speedy recovery.

On Thursday, the IRS will put on the auction block some of the lavish items Congressman Randy "Duke" Cunningham accepted as bribes. But right now, you can get a glimpse of some of them online. Let's get a firsthand look from our Internet reporter, Abbi Tatton -- Abbi.

ABBI TATTON, CNN INTERNET REPORTER: Wolf, the piles of oriental rugs in this warehouse in California that the public is seeing for the first time today and the rows of antiques give you a glimpse into the extent of former Congressman Randy "Duke" Cunningham's crimes.

They're part of $2.4 million of bribes that the former congressman says he accepted. And you can go online at the Web site and see exactly what we're talking about. More than 30 items here. Armoires, candlesticks, full descriptions tell you that not one, but two commodes with black marble tops. All of this is being auctioned off by the IRS. The auction starts on Thursday morning. The proceeds are split between the IRS and the FBI -- Wolf.

BLITZER: Abbi, thanks very much.

Up next, why did President Bush go to war in Iraq? He just got asked that question today. What do you think the reason is? Jack Cafferty weighing in with your thoughts. That's coming up next in THE SITUATION ROOM.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BLITZER: Let's go right to Zain at the CNN Center -- Zain.

VERJEE: Wolf, President Bush is calling Liberia's new president a courageous pioneer. Mr. Bush is hosting President Ellen Johnson- Sirleaf at the White House today. The Harvard-educated economist is Africa's first elected female leader.

She's trying to rebuild a country recovering from a long civil war, massive unemployment, and poor infrastructure throughout the country. Roads, no water, hospitals are the issues that she needs to address.

Thousands of students rallied in Paris again today. They're protesting a government labor law which makes it easier for companies to fire younger workers. At one point, riot police armed with batons and shields used tear gas to disperse the packed crowd. Some protestors threw bottles at police, but today's marches have mostly been peaceful -- Wolf.

BLITZER: Zain, let's go back to Jack in New York.

Jack, did you get a lot of email on your question?

CAFFERTY: Yes we did, actually. Much more than we usually get at this time of the afternoon. I don't know why exactly, but a lot of people weighing in on the news conference today. Maybe a lot of people watched it.

Long time White House correspondent Helen Thomas asked the president why he wanted to go to war in Iraq. The president said assuming he wanted to go to war is wrong, that no president wants war. The question we asked is, why do you think President Bush decided to go to war in Iraq? And we got a ton of mail

Bonnie in Glenville, New York: "In order to prove to his father that he could actually accomplish something, and that something was to get Saddam. His father tried and failed. Like father, like son.

Sean in Des Moines, Iowa, wrote, "Bush went to war to get rid of a tyrant dictator and bring peace to the Middle East. He surely didn't do it for popularity."

Tom in Encinitas, California: "Bush invaded Iraq because they're sitting on the second largest pool of oil on the planet."

Gary in Hanover, Pennsylvania: "Helen Thomas embarrassed him. He wanted to distract people away from the real issues such as illegal immigration, health costs, oil company windfalls, border protection, outsourcing of jobs, and selling of America to the highest bidders then start a war and play the patriotism card. It works every time."

Ryan in Demote, Indiana: "The answer's plain and simple: 9/11. Too many people have forgotten that we were attacked for no reason at all. Any president, Democrat or Republican, in Bush's shoes would have made the same choice."

And Kathy in Westchester, Pennsylvania: "I don't think Bush even knows what the real reason is anymore. He's given so many different ones over and over and over again that I think he's lost the plot" -- Wolf.

BLITZER: Jack, thanks very much. And coming up in the next hour, we're going to speak live with Helen Thomas right here in THE SITUATION ROOM. Still to come. Who's the boss? Would it be Bill or Hillary Clinton? We're going to examine questions about a possible power struggle under way in the wake of the Dubai ports debacle. Stay with us.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BLITZER: Welcome back to THE SITUATION ROOM. There's a question today about one of America's most prominent power couples. Who's the boss? "The New York Daily News" reports Senator Hillary Clinton's camp now has the final say over her husband's public comments.

Representatives from both Clintons, though, say that's not necessarily true. Our Mary Snow has been looking into this story. She's joining us from New York.

What are you picking up, Mary?

MARY SNOW, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well, Wolf, former President Bill Clinton and Senator Hillary Clinton are known to differ on opinions from time to time. The question, as the senator runs for re-election in New York amid speculation about a political future, is there now an effort to keep their message on the same page?

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

SNOW: On "The New York Daily News" front page, "Zip it." The paper says Senator Hillary Clinton has the final word over what former President Bill Clinton says and does in public.

KENNETH BAZINET, "NEW YORK DAILY NEWS" REPORTER: The final decision goes to Senator Clinton. But that's not really as strong a veto or edict as you might think. President Clinton is perhaps the wisest mind in the Democratic Party. He's well aware that this is Senator Clinton's time, and he knows what it takes to get elected president, obviously.

SNOW: Representatives from both camps deny the story, saying, quote, "the story is not true. The anonymous sources are anonymous for a reason. They're wrong." But reporter Kenneth Bazinet defends the story, saying it's based on three dozen interviews since November.

President and Senator Clinton have stood united in public, and they've had differences. One example, the Dubai Ports World deal. Senator Clinton opposed any ports deal with a foreign government.

SEN. HILLARY CLINTON (D), NEW YORK: Port security is too important an issue to be treated so cavalierly.

SNOW: At the same time, officials from Dubai Ports World called president Clinton to discuss the issue. On Iraq, Senator Clinton voted to authorize the war. Listen to President Clinton in THE SITUATION ROOM last August.

BILL CLINTON, FORMER PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: Well, at the time, Wolf, I thought that we should not have gone in there until we let the U.N. inspectors finish their job.

BAZINET: It's definitely, "Temper your words. Be careful what you said. Let's stay on the same message. Let's try to stay on the same page."

SNOW: Bill Clinton said he will work to get his wife reelected in New York. But a Democratic strategist doubts the former president is taking orders.

HANK SHEINKOPF, DEMOCRATIC STRATEGIST: It's hard to imagine Bill Clinton being told by anybody how to behave. And it's even more ridiculous to think the senator is going to tell the former president what to say and what not to say.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

SNOW: Observers also it's difficult to control what the former president says since he is so public and is very accessible in his life after the White House -- Wolf.

BLITZER: Mary, thanks very much.

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