Hardball for Dean, softball for Allen: MSNBC's O'Donnell echoed Republican attacks, misleading statements

››› ››› JOE BROWN

During separate one-on-one interviews with Howard Dean and Sen. George Allen, MSNBC's Norah O'Donnell gave starkly different treatments to each -- asking Dean to respond to Republican attacks on Democrats for most of his interview, while favoring Allen with only two questions that asked him to address criticism of Republicans.

On the June 19 edition of MSNBC's Hardball with Chris Matthews, guest host and MSNBC chief White House correspondent Norah O'Donnell gave starkly different treatments to Democratic National Committee chairman Howard Dean and Sen. George Allen (R-VA) in separate one-on-one interviews. Of the 11 questions O'Donnell aired from her videotaped interview with Dean, seven required Dean to respond to Republican attacks on Democrats, misleading Republican statements, or statements questioning Democrats' unity on the Iraq issue. O'Donnell adopted several of these Republican talking points herself and defended Vice President Dick Cheney over his claim that the invasion was "in part responsible" for the fact that the United States has not been attacked again by terrorists since September 11, 2001.

In contrast, only two of O'Donnell's nine questions to Allen required a response from Allen to criticism of Republicans. Moreover, O'Donnell asked Allen three softball questions about his recent speech before a friendly Republican group in Iowa and provided him with an open door to attack Sen. John Kerry (D-MA). Later, during a panel discussion with New York Daily News Washington bureau chief Thomas M. DeFrank and Washington Times editorial page editor Tony Blankley, O'Donnell asked Blankley to respond to Vice President Dick Cheney's assertion that "I don't think anybody anticipated the level of violence that we've encountered" in Iraq. But neither O'Donnell nor Blankley noted that experts did, in fact, raise the possibility of "guerrilla warfare," "terrorism," and "violent internal conflict" in post-war Iraq.

Hardball for Dean

During her interview with Dean, O'Donnell asked Dean to respond to Cheney's assertion, from a June 15 interview with Fox News' Sean Hannity, that the U.S. invasion of Iraq was "in part responsible" for the fact that the United States has not been attacked again by terrorists since 9-11. When Dean dismissed Cheney's statement as "hooey," given that "Saddam Hussein had nothing to do with 9-11," O'Donnell defended Cheney's remarks, asking why Dean "[c]an't give this administration some credit" for the fact that "there's not been an attack on American soil in five years." From the interview:

O'DONNELL: [H]e says it's in part because we've done a better job protecting Americans overseas by taking the fight overseas; it's in part because of the Patriot Act and in part because of domestic surveillance. Can't you give this administration some credit? It is true there's not been an attack on American soil in five years.

O'Donnell also asked Dean if, given that Rep. John P. Murtha (D-PA) "says that we cannot win in Iraq," Dean "honestly believe[s]" that Americans will "vote for Democrats in November who say we can't win in Iraq?" She also asked Dean to respond to her assertion that congressional Democrats' policy platform, "A New Direction for America," unveiled June 14, "make[s] absolutely no mention of ... a plan for Iraq," which, she suggested, "just reinforce[s] the idea that Democrats are weak on national security." In fact, as Media Matters for America noted, the "New Direction" platform addressed only domestic policy, but the Democrats' March 29 "Real Security" strategy document did address U.S. Iraq policy. Even after Dean protested that there was a "unified Democratic plan" for dealing with Iraq -- presumably referring to the Democrats' "Real Security" document -- O'Donnell accused him of "trying to avoid" her questions and reasserted that the Democrats "can't put down on paper exactly what their unified plan is."

Further, O'Donnell asked Dean to respond to a statement by White House senior adviser Karl Rove that Democrats "fall back on [their] old pattern of cutting and running" when things get "tough" in wartime. She also asked Dean to comment on the difference between Kerry's position on when to withdraw U.S. troops from Iraq and that of Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (D-NY).

Softball for Allen

O'Donnell confronted Allen with only two questions challenging Republicans. She asked Allen to respond to "the criticism by some" that the U.S. presence in Iraq is "antagonizing" Iraqis, that "they are retaliating by capturing our soldiers," and that events like the recent kidnapping of two U.S. soldiers "wouldn't happen" if the United States "weren't there." (The deaths of both soldiers were reported on June 20.) O'Donnell also asked Allen to comment on "the state of American politics," given that Americans have soured on the Iraq war and Allen "can be challenged" in his re-election bid by "anti-war Democrat" Jim Webb in a "usually pretty safe red state [Virginia]."

But O'Donnell also gave Allen the opportunity to attack Kerry, asking him to comment on the fact that Kerry is "pushing back the date" by which he says U.S. troops should withdraw from Iraq, from December 31, 2006, to July 1, 2007. Allen responded by criticizing Kerry's "unsteady ... leadership," and by accusing him of "embolden[ing] our enemies," "caus[ing] dismay to our allies," and "discouraging ... the Iraqi government and leaders who are really brave."

O'Donnell asked Allen a series of softball questions, relating to a recent speech he gave to a friendly Republican group in Iowa. From the interview:

O'DONNELL: I have to ask you quickly because we notice that you were in Iowa over the weekend, with some other Republicans [the Iowa Federation of Republican Women]. What were you doing there?


O'DONNELL: And how were you received?


O'DONNELL: And I read recently though that you recently said you wish you were born in Iowa.

Failing to challenge Cheney's statements

During the panel discussion with DeFrank and Blankley, O'Donnell asked Blankley to comment on Cheney's statement that "I don't think anybody anticipated the level of violence" currently taking place in Iraq. Neither O'Donnell nor Blankley questioned Cheney's claim that there wasn't "anybody" who "anticipated the level of violence" in post-war Iraq. But The New York Times reported on September 27, 2004, that the National Intelligence Council (NIC) -- the U.S. intelligence community's "center for midterm and long-term strategic thinking" -- raised the possibility of post-war insurgency and terrorism in Iraq in two pre-war reports.

The Times reported that according to "three government officials who have seen or been briefed" on the NIC's prewar assessments, "two classified reports prepared for President Bush in January 2003" by the NIC "predicted that an American-led invasion of Iraq would increase support for political Islam and would result in a deeply divided Iraqi society prone to violent internal conflict." The Times reported that one NIC report "warned of a possible insurgency against the new Iraqi government or American-led forces, saying that rogue elements from Saddam Hussein's government could work with existing terrorist groups or act independently to wage guerrilla warfare." According to the same officials, the NIC assessments also cited "a significant chance that domestic groups [in Iraq] would engage in violent internal conflict with one another unless an occupying force prevented them from doing so."

Moreover, as the weblog Think Progress noted, a February 2003 faculty report from the Army War College's Strategic Studies Institute acknowledged the "[p]otential for [t]errorism against U.S. [o]ccupation [f]orces." The authors predicted that "[t]he longer a U.S. occupation of Iraq continues, the more danger exists that elements of the Iraqi population will ... take violent measures to hasten the departure of U.S. forces." The report noted that "many Iraqi citizens have access to firearms," and that "future Iraqi terrorist leaders" could also have the tactic of suicide bombing "at the forefront of their minds." Further, the authors stated that sectarian "discontent" among the various ethnic and religious groups in Iraq "could fuel mass action or even an uprising" against U.S. forces.

From O'Donnell's interview of Dean on the June 19 edition of MSNBC's Hardball with Chris Matthews:

O'DONNELL: Welcome back to Hardball. After getting a clean bill of health in the CIA leak case, Karl Rove came out swinging at anti-war Democrats. This past weekend, Congressman John Murtha hit back on [NBC's] Meet the Press. Let's take a look.

[begin video clip]

ROVE: But when it gets tough and when it gets difficult, they fall back on that party's old pattern of cutting and running. They may be with you at the first shots, but they are not going to be there for the last tough battles.

MURTHA: He's in New Hampshire, he's making a political speech, he's sitting in his air-conditioned office in his big fat backside, saying, "Stay the course." That's not a plan. I mean, this guy -- I don't know what his military experience is but that's a political statement. This is a policy difference between me and the White House. I disagree completely with what he's saying.

[end video clip]

O'DONNELL: Earlier today, I spoke to the Democrats' national chairman, Howard Dean, and I asked him about this fight and the heated elections that are coming up this fall.

[begin video clip]

DEAN: I believe that John Murtha, who served two terms in Vietnam and 37 years as a combat veteran marine, knows a great deal about more -- about national defense than anybody in the Republican National Committee and in the large majority of people in the White House.

You can't -- you simply can't trust the Republicans to defend America anymore. It's not that they're not willing to be tough; it's just that they're not smart. They've gotten us into a situation in Iraq -- we had one week of good news, now two of our brave soldiers are kidnapped. You cannot trust people who won't pay attention to the military and will send our troops abroad without proper equipment. You can't trust those people to defend America. I submit to you that it is the Republicans that are weak on defense, 'cause they don't know what they're doing.

O'DONNELL: Well, respond directly to what Karl Rove was saying, because what he said is that "[t]hey may be with you at the first shots, but they are not going to be with you [sic] for the last tough battles." Both John Kerry and John Murtha voted for this war and Karl Rove says they're not sticking with us to the end, they're cutting and running.


O'DONNELL: We're going to talk about North Korea in just a minute, but let's go back to the issue of Iraq. And Congressman Murtha says that we cannot win in Iraq. Do you honestly believe that the American voters are going to vote for Democrats in November who say we can't win in Iraq?

DEAN: We're not going to win with this president in command, because this president didn't understood -- understand what was happening when we went in there. He misled the nation about what we were going to find when we did. How about [Secretary of Defense] Don Rumsfeld saying their oil revenues were going to pay for all of this? It's going to cost us a trillion dollars. How about Don Rumsfeld saying that they were going to welcome us with open arms and parades? Give us a break.

This president got us in there without understanding what he was doing. I would be honored to have people who actually served this country in a war leading this country again, to talk to us about what it really takes to fight a war. I don't think the Republicans understand that.

O'DONNELL: With all due respect, Chairman Dean, many of these issues were talked about in the 2004 election, and so, what many voters may be looking about [sic] in this year's election is the way forward. What do we do in Iraq now? Why is it that the Democrats, who just unveiled this new plan last week called "A New Direction for America" make absolutely no mention of Iraq in a plan for Iraq. Doesn't that just reinforce the idea that Democrats are weak on national security, they can't come together and create -- put together a plan?

DEAN: No, actually, the unified Democratic plan does call for something to do with Iraq. It calls for a transition now. It calls for a redeployment of our troops so we get them out of harm's way while we're still able to respond to the terrorist threat.

O'DONNELL: What is a redeployment of troops mean?

DEAN: Well, let me first answer your question. What you were talking about is the House agenda for what they were he going to pass, should they come back in power, which is increasing the minimum wage, balancing the budget, which the Republicans haven't been able to do. In fact, no Republican has balanced the budget for 40 years.

O'DONNELL: You're still not dealing with the issue of Iraq.

DEAN: Yes, we are.

O'DONNELL: I mean, you have three-quarters of the House Democrats who say that they want some sort of phased withdrawal, if you will, from Iraq. You have multiple resolutions and amendments being put forward in the Senate, even a new one today by Senators [Harry] Reid [D-NY] and Senators [sic] [Carl] Levin [D-MI]. So, with all this talk out there, why is it the Democrats can't put down on paper exactly what their unified plan is? What are you trying to avoid?

DEAN: Well, first of all, let me remind you that it's the Republicans that run everything. I think it's pretty terrific of the Democrats to put down a plan because the Republicans don't seem to have one of any kind, except a permanent commitment to a failed strategy, which we got into because we weren't told the truth.

Our plan is this is a transition year, which the Republicans have now adopted, which I think is great, and there's going to be a redeployment of our troops, some to other countries, for example, Afghanistan, some in the region out of Iraq but in the region ready to respond to events in Iraq, some remaining in Iraq for a period of time, in order to train the Iraqis and the guard and reserves coming home. I think that's a good plan, I think it's a Democratic plan, and I think it's far better than the Republicans that have no plan of any kind.

O'DONNELL: So, this word "phased" redeployment means a withdrawal with a timetable?

DEAN: No, it doesn't. It means just what it says, a phased redeployment. That means some troops will come home, others will stay in the region for a length of time, because we are not going to be able to bring all our troops out of this region. We can get them out of Iraq, but we cannot get them out of the region because the president has destabilized Iraq and created a situation where terrorists now are in Iraq, where they were not before.

O'DONNELL: Let me ask you: You are the chairman of the Democratic National Committee. John Kerry is proposing an amendment, which would call for a timed withdrawal our troops, by next year sometime. Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton rejects such a timetable. Who's right, John Kerry or Hillary Clinton?


O'DONNELL: And we are back with the chairman of the Democratic National Committee, Howard Dean. Let me ask you, Vice-President Cheney said today, it's no accident that the United States has not been attacked since 9-11. Just last week, he said that taking out Saddam Hussein was, in part, the reason we've not been attacked. Your reaction?

DEAN: That's complete hooey. Saddam Hussein had nothing to do with 9-11. That's just part of the Republican nonsense that got us in to Iraq in the first place and Americans now know that's complete hooey and that the president and the vice president were not telling the truth when they said that.

O'DONNELL: But he says it's in part because we've done a better job protecting Americans overseas, by taking the fight overseas, it's in part because of the Patriot Act and in part because of domestic surveillance. Can't you give this administration some credit? It is true there's not been an attack on American soil in five years.


O'DONNELL: Let's turn to the issue of North Korea, clearly the top issue today. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice saying that it would be a very serious matter if, in fact, North Korea moves forward with this test of this long-range missile. She called it a provocative act by North Korea. What should be done?


O'DONNELL: So, are you saying then that if North Korea does in fact move forward with this test of a long-range missile, that you would propose that there should be a military response by the United States?

From O'Donnell's interview of Allen:

O'DONNELL: Full plate here of things to talk about today. But let's first begin with North Korea. How do we deal with a crazy man, Kim Jong-Il, who is essentially fueling up a long- range ballistic missile that could reach America?


O'DONNELL: They're virtually isolated anyway, except from -- from everyone except for China and some other -- some other Asian countries. Do you believe that the president has authority to take military action, if need be, in North Korea?


O'DONNELL: It's interesting -- this week, there's going to be a lot about the axis of evil, we're talking about North Korea -- the president is traveling overseas to Vienna. We'll be talking a lot about Iran. Iraq is once again, of course, as always, in the headlines. The big headline out of Iraq certainly today is that two of our soldiers are missing and may have been captured by Al Qaeda. Do you believe this is payback for the killing of Zarqawi?


O'DONNELL: So, respond to what has been the criticism by some that our actual presence there in Iraq is antagonizing these people and that they are retaliating by capturing our soldiers. And if that we weren't there, something like this wouldn't happen.


O'DONNELL: The president has been making the case that progress is being made in Iraq, Vice President Cheney talking about that again today. That it's part of the reason we haven't had an attack since 9-11, that controversial remark. Nevertheless, politically in this country, more than half of Americans say the war was not worth it, Iraq was not worth it, and you are facing re-election this year in 2006. You've got a candidate, a guy named Jim Webb, who used to be a Republican who's running as an anti-war Democrat and he's got -- he's challenging you and you're usually pretty safe in a Red State. I mean, what does that say about the state of American politics that senators like you can be challenged by an anti-war Democrat?


O'DONNELL: You talked about Senator John Kerry, who along with some other Democratic senators this week in the Senate, are introducing resolutions, amendments, calling for some sort of phased redeployment or timetable. We just learned tonight Senator John Kerry is now pushing back the date, that he is calling for U.S. troops to withdraw from Iraq. He originally said it should be December 31st of this year, but now he says he thinks it should be July 1st, 2007.

ALLEN: I don't know what happened to him over the weekend, but we got another six months. This is the unsteady sort of leadership that I think the American people reject. It is the sort of approach that I do think can embolden our enemies. But also cause dismay to our allies, if this is the sort of leadership that comes from the United States. And I also think it can be discouraging to the Iraqi government and leaders who are really brave. And I guarantee you, these terrorists would like to knock them out. They don't like the idea of a free and just society where men and women have the right to vote, where you have freedom of expression for men and women and they don't like freedom of religion as well.

So, the reality is what we have to be looking as -- are actual benchmarks and the benchmarks are more Iraqis being trained in their own security, building with their own hands, electricity, water, sewer, those sort of things. Those are the benchmarks where I think our troops will be able to stand down.

O'DONNELL: I have to ask you quickly, because we notice that you were in Iowa over the weekend with some other Republicans. What were you doing there?

ALLEN: Oh, they asked me way back in the winter if I would come and speak to the Iowa Federation Republican Women at their luncheon, at their convention.

O'DONNELL: And how were you received?

ALLEN: I was -- a great reception for folks. My mother and father were married in Sioux City, Iowa, so it was fun to be there, and I also do keep my commitments.

O'DONNELL: And I read recently, though, that you recently said you wish you were born in Iowa.

ALLEN: Well, during the gestation period, my father got his first head coaching job -- was at Morningside College in Sioux City, where my mother met him. My mother came over from Tunisia and fell in love with my father, they got married. During the gestation period, my father got a job at Whittier College [in California], the Poets -- a fierce name for a team -- and so that's where I was born. Of course, my preference would have been my father got offered a job at the University of Virginia and I could have been born in Charlottesville like all my kids.

From O'Donnell's panel discussion with DeFrank and Blankley:

[begin video clip, June 19 speech at National Press Club]

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Do you think that you underestimated the insurgency's strength?

CHENEY: I think so. I guess the -- if I look back on it now, I don't think anybody anticipated the level of violence that we've encountered.

[end video clip]

O'DONNELL: Welcome back to Hardball. That was Vice President Cheney speaking earlier today about the situation in Iraq. As you heard, Cheney said he thinks that he underestimated the insurgency there.


O'DONNELL: Tony, let me ask you about what the vice president said today. He did not back away from his comment, "the insurgency was in its last throes." But he did say that they underestimated the intensity of the insurgency.

BLANKLEY: I mean, it's obvious, there's no other statement one could make at this point, given the characterizations that they made in 2002 and early 2003. So, he wasn't giving away a lot. Clearly, they did underestimate it. I mean, they were talking about the plans were for General [Tommy] Frank [sic] to move the troops out within weeks of entering Baghdad. We understand now that that was never a practical policy. So, he made the concession to reality, which is what, as Tom says, adults do.

Norah O'Donnell
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