White House Chief of Staff Andy Card Discusses Bush Administration's Actions on 9/11

The News with Brian Williams
NBC
September 9, 2002

 

BRIAN WILLIAMS, anchor:

Tonight, who will tell the president? Our conversation with the man who runs the White House staff whose job it was to break the news of 9/11 to President Bush. Also, what it was like that day on board the flying White House. We'll be joined by the only network television correspondent who was on board that day for a very uncertain ride.

Announcer: THE NEWS on CNBC continues. Here again is Brian Williams.

WILLIAMS: Good evening once again. Welcome back to our studios in New York and THE NEWS on CNBC. On the morning of September 11th, 2001, President Bush was reading to an assembly of second graders at a Sarasota, Florida, elementary school. Many in the assembled pool of media thought it was odd that White House Chief of Staff Andy Card walked right in during a presentation and said something in the president's ear. Some then thought the look on the president's face was downright haunting. Recently in the West Wing of the White House, I sat down with White House Chief of Staff Andrew Card. We talked about telling the president, protecting the president, and projecting the image of a White House suddenly engaged in a war. It all starts that day in a Florida school.

Mr. ANDY CARD; We were in the--in the holding room outside of a classroom. The president was getting ready to go in and meet with students to talk about reading, and word came from the situation room that there had been a plane crash into one of the World Trade Center towers. And the president was informed by Karl Rove. We were standing just as the president was getting ready to go into the classroom. And the president went into the classroom, and I came back to the holding room, and then we received information that there had been a second plane, and it was clear that the second plane could not have been there as a coincidence. And turned out that the first plane was a jetliner. The second plane we knew to be a jetliner. And then I rushed to to decide how to inform the president and when to inform him. And the test that I went through: If I were president, would I want to know? So I gathered my thoughts, tried to be very efficient in the words that I used. I took one step into the classroom, looked over to the press pool that was gathered at the back of the room, and I remember looking at one reporter, and she--she kind of--kind of looked at me like, 'What are you doing here?' And I held up two fingers, said, 'A second plane,' and then waited for a slight break in the conversation in the classroom and went up to the president's right ear and said, 'A second plane hit the second tower. America is under attack.' And then I pulled away from the president, and not that many seconds later the president excused himself from the classroom and we gathered in the holding room and talked about the situation.

WILLIAMS: You had the presence of mind on the say, 'America is under attack,' which--instead of saying, 'Don't react to what I'm about to tell you,' or, 'Try to keep a straight face, and we'll keep the event going,' you really did crystalize it. That's exactly what was going on. It's to then watch the president who spent the next few seconds, I guess, dealing with what must have been the crushing weight of realizing, well, like it or not, your presidency was just defined.

Mr. CARD: I wanted to explain the enormity of the situation without answering questions from him. I didn't want to have a discussion in front of the classroom or in front of the media. And so I tried to pick words that would succinctly describe the situation and would require no explanation.

WILLIAMS: What happens next? The motorcade forms up. WHCA, the White House Communications Agency, were they able to bring you live pictures? Were you able to watch what was going on?

Mr. CARD: In the holding room outside of the classroom, we brought in a television while the president was in speaking with the students, so by the time the president came in to the holding room after I had informed him of the attack, we were able to watch what was happening in Manhattan. We obviously hadn't had any word about what had happened at the Pentagon yet. I was intent on getting the president to a safe environment where he had good communications, and by definition, that was Air Force One at that particular moment. So we were anxious to get to Air Force One. As we were heading to Air Force One, we did hear about the Pentagon attack, and we also learned, what turned out to be a mistake, but we learned that the Air Force One package could in fact be a target.

WILLIAMS: Once you were in the sky, it is said you took evasive action as an aircraft. Can you describe that?

Mr. CARD: Well, the--the plane very quickly climbed to a high altitude and did fly a serpentine route. We also commend indicated with the Defense Department, and--and they scrambled some jets that were able to catch up with us and provide some protection. We did not let anyone know where we were going until literally just before we were getting ready to land. And we landed at Barksdale Air Force Base in Louisiana, where the president was able to get off the plane and allow some of the other people to get off the plane. And then he communicated to the world via video conference.

President GEORGE W. BUSH: (From file footage) Freedom itself was attacked this morning by a faceless coward.

Mr. CARD: And then the president also spoke with his advisers, although with had outstanding communications on Air Force One, so the the president was never out of of communication with the command structure of our military or with the vice president or the situation room, and Dr. Condoleezza Rice, the national security adviser. We had close contact with what was happening in the military chain of command as they were watching the skies with the FAA to see what planes were flying and where they were flying, where they might be headed. And we were able to determine when the dust was settled in terms of us being able to predict the president's safety so we could get him back to Washington.

WILLIAMS: It was a long day. Americans were scared. The--in addition to seeing the president on videotape, the only other physical manifestation of the administration was Karen Hughes over at the FBI briefing room. Some that day voiced, let's call it glancing concern, if not criticism, the president was gone too long, too much of that day. Now, we have the beauty of 20/20 hindsight. Would you change anything if you could?

Mr. CARD: No, I would not. It was imperative that we understand that president has to stay in a safe environment where he has good communications, and that's what our Constitution requires. I mean, because only the president can make the toughest of decisions, and you know the tough decisions that were put on the president's desk. Should the military have the authority to shoot down a jet--commercial jetliner? That decision to be made by surrogates. It's a decision to be made by the president.

WILLIAMS: Is time more meaningful now? Is there a--a crispness to interactions with him because of the seriousness of purpose that's didn't exist? Does he get the unvarnished truth in very short order from anyone in this building?

Mr. CARD: Yes, I speak very candidly with the president every day, and my job is to have a relationship with him that is unvarnished. He tells me what he thinks I should be doing, and I tell him what I think he should be doing, and we speak very, very candidly. And as long as I'm chief of staff, it's imperative that that be the way we function.

WILLIAMS: The--the president had a huge bubble of goodwill after September 11th. No president with America had--had been attacked, after all. We have seen a diminution in his popularity numbers. It is said now, if you watch the TV shows and read the op-ed pages, he has to sell everything from now on: the economy, if this nation goes to war against Iraq. Is he prepared on the bully pulpit part of this job?

Mr. CARD: Yes, he is. And first of all, his popularity is still unbelievably high. He's got record popularity for a president, and his popularity has been sustained for a long time and I think it's because of his outstanding leadership and the fact that people respect the tough decisions he has to make, and they like how he has been making those decisions. This president knows what the job of being president is, and he meets the responsibilities well. He's a good communicator because he speaks candidly. He is not one who likes to be poured on with rhetoric. He likes to pour out with candor. That's how he--he communicates with the American people, and he tells it like it is. And when he says he's going to get them, he's going to get them.

WILLIAMS: Our interview in the Roosevelt Room of the West Wing with Andy Card, chief of staff at the White House.



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