"Let me say very clearly: I am not addressing any particular report"

The White House on the hospital visit.

Published May 18, 2007 7:36PM (EDT)

At the White House today, deputy press secretary Tony Fratto was asked all sorts of questions about the visit Andy Card and Alberto Gonzales made to John Ashcroft's hospital room. By our count, he provided a straightforward answer to just one of them: At the end of the questioning, a reporter asked if he could change the subject. Fratto said, "Sure."

Here's what happened before then:

Question: Sens. [Chuck] Schumer and [Dianne] Feinstein are going to introduce a no-confidence resolution for Attorney General Gonzales next week ... You have a sixth Republican, Norm Coleman, come out and say the attorney general should resign. Doesn't this all add up to the weight that's dragging him down? And how can he be effective with all ...

Fratto: I think it adds up to the bottomless bag of tricks that Democrats in the Senate would like to pull out on a weekly basis, regarding the attorney general. The attorney general has the full confidence of the president. He's focused on the mission of the Department of Justice, which is to keep Americans safe, protect us from domestic terrorism threats, child predators. We know that this has been a difficult period, dealing with the discussion and questions having to do with the U.S. attorneys. But the attorney general is sticking to his job. We feel he's been a very strong attorney general, and we continue to support him.

Question: You addressed the Democratic part of that question. You didn't say anything about the six Republicans. And you also had [Sen. Arlen] Specter saying that he predicts that he'll resign -- Gonzales will resign, saying that he's unable to perform his duties. What about the Republicans?

Fratto: We understand that there are senators who have different views.

Question: I'm talking about the Republicans.

Fratto: Talking about senators of both parties, and we understand that they have concerns and questions. We think that the attorney general has been honest and forthright in addressing those questions, and as I said earlier, most importantly, has the full confidence of the president.

Question: But, Tony, when you say he has the full confidence of the president, and when you say you feel he's been a strong attorney general, doesn't this erode the president's credibility when it seems like the entire rest of the political universe is on the other side of that?

Fratto: No, I don't think that's where everyone is. Look ...

Question: How is -- who's on his side?

Fratto: What we are focusing on, what we think the attorney general is focusing on, is the mission of the Department of Justice. I haven't heard anyone say that the Department of Justice has been weak in enforcing child predator laws. I haven't heard anyone say that the Department of Justice has been anything short of strong and aggressive in protecting America from domestic terrorism threats. Those are the things that we are focusing on, and those things have happened under this attorney general's leadership.

Question: Let me just follow up on that. Yesterday, Kelly asked the president straight up about the report of when Gonzales was counsel and sending Andy Card down to the hospital. The president refused to answer, saying it was a national security issue. No part of her question had anything to do with national security issues.

Fratto: No, there are two points there. One is the discussion of classified programs; and the second is deliberative discussions among and between advisors to the president -- neither of which is an open window for us to look into and talk about. Now, I think the president -- I think that's the point that the president was making. It puts us in a difficult communications position, because we understand there are questions out there and it's difficult for us from the podium. But that's not something that we can get into, and we're not going to get into.

Question: He can unilaterally declassify, so ...

Fratto: He could, but I think he'd prefer to put the safety and security of Americans ahead of that interest.

Question: How does it jeopardize the safety and security of Americans, to say whether ...

Fratto: Any time we talk about ...

Question: ... to say whether he ordered those guys to go to the hotel room?

Fratto: The hospital room ...

Question: I'm sorry, hospital room.

Fratto: ... According to the reports ... Any time we talk about classified programs you're opening the door, and we need to be very careful in how we talk about it. Let me make another point that the president made yesterday. All of our programs have been appropriately briefed to Congress. They have all had appropriate oversight. So I think that is the forum for discussing our classified programs, and I think that is where we're going to leave it.

Question: Are you saying that the Congress knew the president ordered the wiretapping without any warrant, and they said OK?

Fratto: I'm saying that appropriate briefings of Congress were made.

Question: I'm asking you if they were asked, if the intelligence committees were asked, whether he could -- go ahead with this program.

Fratto: That's not what I said. I said ...

Question: No, I'm -- it's what I'm saying.

Fratto: And maybe you can pose that to the intelligence committees. All I can report is that ...

Question: You're giving a blanket statement that they've been informed ...

Fratto: No, you're asking me to be the spokesman for the intelligence committees.

Question: No, no, no. I'm asking you to be a spokesman for the White House, and tell us whether they knew these programs would go ahead, by the president's order, against the law?

Fratto: All I can say is that they were appropriately briefed.

Question: Under what circumstances is it appropriate for White House aides to go to -- to bypass the chain of command of the acting attorney general and go to ...

Fratto: You're asking me to get into -- I know you're trying to put it in a general way, but I think we all know the context in which you're asking.

Question: It's kind of confusing to understand ...

Fratto: It shouldn't be, because ...

Question: It's not about -- in some ways this is really not about whether the program is classified or not, it's about the bypass of a chain of command, and why that would be appropriate.

Fratto: No, there is no -- without talking -- go ahead.

Question: Does the White House deny that this incident occurred, where ...

Fratto: We're not ...

Question: ... in relation to some unnamed, unspecified program, these two White House aides sought out the attorney general -- who was ill and had passed his powers over to his acting -- sought him out instead of going to the attorney general. Do you guys deny that took place?

Fratto: Let me say very clearly: I am not addressing any particular report, OK? But I will say that ultimate authority rests with the president of the United States.

Question: Does the White House believe that James Comey was out of line in discussing this in a public hearing?

Fratto: I don't have any comment on that.

Question: If you won't comment on that issue because of the classified nature of the program on which it was focused, it seems like you might think that Comey was out of line in discussing it.

Frattto: You can draw conclusions.

Question: I mean, is there any possibility that Mr. Comey will be charged with divulging classified information for discussing this? I mean, if the president is not willing to discuss this, and it's improper to do so, then wasn't it improper for Mr. Comey to discuss this?

Fratto: I think that would be a question for the Department of Justice.

Question: Tony, was there anything factually incorrect about Comey's version?

Fratto: I'm not in a position to comment on reports of Comey's testimony.

By Tim Grieve

Tim Grieve is a senior writer and the author of Salon's War Room blog.

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