Networks Play Up Robert Gates's 'Devastating Critique' of Obama, Biden
ABC, CBS, and NBC ballyhooed former Defense Secretary Robert Gates's attacks on President Obama and other high government officials on their Tuesday evening and Wednesday morning newscasts. NBC's Brian Williams and CBS's Norah O'Donnell also trumpeted the former Cabinet official's "devastating critique" of the President in his upcoming memoir. All three networks also played up Gates's self-identification as a Republican.
NBC's Today and CBS This Morning brought on former Obama administration officials on Wednesday morning. Both guests did their best to counter their former colleague. Matt Lauer touted David Axelrod's "important perspective" on the issue, and asked, "Did you get a sense that he was a guy who...was disgruntled in any way?" The CBS morning show turned to former chief of staff Bill Daley, who slammed Gates for going public: [MP3 audio available here; video below]
BILL DALEY, FMR. OBAMA CHIEF OF STAFF: ...[T]his rush to do books by people who leave an administration, while the administration is ongoing, I think is unfortunate. It's one thing as historians look back on an administration – but in the middle of it, when you're pursuing a war at the same time – and one that is very controversial with the American people and has been very difficult on our military – I think it's just a disservice, to be very frank with you.
On Tuesday's World News, anchor Diane Sawyer labeled the former defense secretary an "unlikely author," as she introduced correspondent Jonathan Karl's report on the soon-to-be-released book. Karl outlined Gates's "deep misgivings about the President he served," and pointed out that he "calls himself a Republican." The ABC journalist later noted that "his [Gates] harshest criticism is of Vice President [Joe] Biden, who he calls a man of integrity but, quote, 'I think he has been wrong on nearly every major foreign policy and national security issue over the past four decades.'"
Hour later, on Wednesday's Good Morning America, ABC's George Stephanopoulos touted the "bombshell book from former Defense Secretary Robert Gates" as he introduced a second report from Karl, and added that "his blunt and candid wartime reflections take aim at the President, Congress, the White House staff and most harshly Vice President Joe Biden". The correspondent recounted that "the former defense secretary, who calls himself a Republican, is especially harsh in describing the President's actions in the war on Afghanistan."
Brian Williams hyped Gates's upcoming memoir as a "blistering critique" seconds into Tuesday's NBC Nightly News. Williams led into correspondent Andrea Mitchell's report with his "devastating critique" phrase. Mitchell continued by highlighting that the book is "causing heartburn in the White House." She also underlined that "in his sensational new memoir, Gates excoriates the President, Vice President Joe Biden, and former national security advisor Tom Donilon for their handling of the war in Afghanistan and the military." Mitchell and NBC anchor Matt Lauer used similar language the following morning on Today.
Lauer then interviewed Axelrod, and wasted little time before asking his "disgruntled" question about former Secretary Gates. The former Obama adviser answered, in part, that he was "surprised when I saw the stories yesterday because I always felt they had a good working relationship. He always indicated that he had a good working relationship with the President. And the stories themselves are confusing."
Near the end of the segment, the NBC journalist wondered about "Secretary Gates's credibility on these issues. This is a guy who served both Republicans and Democrats, he was a loyal defense secretary, he sacrificed for his country....can you look me in the eye and tell me that you ever honestly thought he would be a guy who would make things up just to sell a book?"
Besides their interview of Bill Daley, Wednesday's CBS This Morning turned to correspondent Rita Braver, who interviewed Gates for an upcoming episode of the network's Sunday Morning program. Braver outlined the former Obama administration's critiques and claims, but also underlined that "his specific criticisms of the President were quite limited," and that "he [Gates] was also very angry, it seems, at Biden – although again, he says that Biden, personally, was very likeable; impossible not to like; funny and irreverent in meetings."
The transcripts of the David Axelrod interview from Wednesday's Today on NBC, and the Bill Daley interview from Wednesday's CBS This Morning:
07:10 am EST
NBC – Today
MATT LAUER: David Axelrod is a former senior adviser to President Obama. He's now an NBC News senior political analyst and director of the Institute of Politics at the University of Chicago. Hi, David, good morning.
DAVID AXELROD: Hey, Matt. How are you?
LAUER: I'm good, thank you. On the positive side, Robert Gates says that President Obama's decision to okay the mission to kill Osama Bin Laden was one of the most courageous decisions he had ever seen in the White House. But as we just heard, some other comments in the book are pretty critical. While you were witnessing Secretary Gates, did you get a sense that he was a guy who was stewing over what he was witnessing? That he was disgruntled in any way?
AXELROD: Absolutely not. In fact, I was surprised when I saw the stories yesterday because I always felt they had a good working relationship. He always indicated that he had a good working relationship with the President. And the stories themselves are confusing, Matt. Because in it, not only did he praise him for the Bin Laden raid, but he said he thought he made the right decisions on Afghanistan, that he was a clear, thoughtful, decisive decision-maker. So his big complaint is that he thinks that he [Obama] wasn't sufficiently personally in his heart committed enough to his own strategy.
LAUER: Well, that – that quote-
AXELROD: I don't think that's true.
LAUER: That quote on the strategy, he talks about being in a meeting. And he says, "As I sat there, I thought: the President doesn't trust his commander, he can't stand Karzai, doesn't believe in his own strategy, and doesn't consider it his war. For him, it's all about getting out." You say that's not a fair assessment?
AXELROD: Well, first, I wasn't in that meeting, but I will tell you this, when we arrived at the White House, there was no Afghanistan strategy, it was a mess. And what the President did was focus the mission, limit the mission, focus on Al Qaeda and defeating and dismantling Al Qaeda, which is why we went to Afghanistan in the first place, and developing a plan to unwind the war and bring our troops home. And I think he was assiduous about trying to keep the military on that plan. So I don't know what transpired at that meeting, but he was very committed to the mission and very appreciative for the great work that our young men and women did in executing that mission.
LAUER: I think this story about the Iraq surge back in 2007 under President Bush is even more damning. Now, I'm paraphrasing here, but to suggest in this book that both Secretary Clinton – or Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama opposed that surge purely for political and not strategic reasons, I think, is going to upset a lot of people. He says this in the book, "To hear the two of them making these admissions, and in front of me, was as surprising as it was dismaying." I think a lot of Americans are gonna be dismayed by that, too, David.
AXELROD: Well, they may well be if they accept this. But remember, Barack Obama opposed the war in Iraq from 2002 forward from its inception. He was against it before it was authorized by the United States Senate. And he certainly wasn't going to double down on a strategy that he didn't believe in. So I know because I was involved with him at that time. There was never a political discussion about this because his position on it was absolutely clear. And even in the book, based on the quotes that were in the newspapers, Secretary Gates said he made some vague suggestion that perhaps that was his [Obama's] position.
LAUER: I want to go back.
AXELROD: But that was not his position.
LAUER: I want to go back to Secretary Gates's credibility on these issues. This is a guy who served both Republicans and Democrats, he was a loyal defense secretary, he sacrificed for his country. Did you ever – can you look me in the eye and tell me that you ever honestly thought he would be a guy who would make things up just to sell a book?
AXELROD: Look, I'm not suggesting that he made things up to sell a book. But I think the language that he used – for example, on that Iraq story – was vague and it was subjective. And it was – there was no declaration on the President's part that he made that decision on a political basis. And there wouldn't have been, because as I said, he was opposed to the war in Iraq from the beginning for all the reasons that Bob Gates suggests in his book that he opposed the war in Iraq because he thought it was a deflection from Afghanistan, where Al Qaeda was situated and where we needed to focus our efforts. So I'm not going to go to his motives. I'm not going to impugn him in any way. But I'm just telling you, from my experience – and I was rather close to the President when he was in the United States Senate –
AXELROD: That was absolutely not the case.
LAUER: Alright. David Axelrod, important perspective this morning. David, thank you very much.
AXELROD: Good to be with you.
07:12 am EST
CBS This Morning
CHARLIE ROSE: During Gates's last six months at the Pentagon, Bill Daley was President Obama's chief of staff. He is now a CBS News contributor. Bill, good morning.
BILL DALEY, FMR. OBAMA CHIEF OF STAFF: Hi, Charlie, how are you? Happy New Year.
[CBS News Graphic: "Daley's View: Fmr. Obama Chief Of Staff On Gates Memoir"]
ROSE: So here, you have a book from the [former] defense secretary, who says the President wanted a way out; that he didn't have confidence in his commander, David Petraeus; he didn't consider the war his; and he didn't believe in his own strategy.
DALEY: Well, I think it's rather unfortunate, because in the year I spent with the President, I saw the exact opposite, to be very frank with you. I saw a President who was very committed, obviously, to support the troops; to support the policy of trying to decimate al-Qaeda, which – from Afghanistan – was their base to attack the United States. And that was the purpose of the surge, and that was the purpose of the action in Afghanistan – was to try to destroy, as best we could, al-Qaeda. And we've done, over the last number of years, a heck of a job for accomplishing that.
I think it's unfortunate that we continue this rush for people to run out, and – and the secretary [Gates], who I have enormous respect for, is very clear in the book of his disgust with Washington and what's become of it. And part of it is based upon a sense that there's too much grandstanding. And this rush to do books by people who leave an administration, while the administration is ongoing, I think is unfortunate. It's one thing as historians look back on an administration – but in the middle of it, when you're pursuing a war at the same time – and one that is very controversial with the American people and has been very difficult on our military – I think it's just a disservice, to be very frank with you. I understand while everyone wants to get out there and write a book and get on the circuit – but I think it's unfortunate.
ROSE: Okay. Let me just make one quick point, because Norah made the point, early in the introduction, that this is a man who is much respected in Washington, has served a number of presidents, and is calm and courtly in his personal style. But he also makes this point: that the NSC [National Security Council] and members of the NSC and members of the President's team were meddling far beyond their responsibility, and were dressing down four-star generals.
DALEY: Well, I never experienced anyone dressing down a four-star general. Obviously, the NSC, made up of professionals, deal with the Pentagon, deal with the State Department, and the intelligence agencies on behalf of the President and his policies – and there's a collaboration. I never sensed, to be honest with you – in the 12 months I was there – a conflict. There are – there are strong disagreements, and Secretary Gates is someone who doesn't hesitate – nor did the four-star generals hesitate – to express their opinions, which the President wanted. As Secretary Gates said, the President was very solicitous all the times I was in national security meetings with the generals, with the intelligence agencies, to get their opinions, and listen to his staff at the same time. But that sort of dialogue is healthy, I think, and that's what I saw.
NORAH O'DONNELL: And we should point out – and Rita Braver is going to join us in a little while – that overall, this book – apparently, though – is very complimentary of the Obama White House and the Bush White House, where Gates says he agrees with the President on a lot of the decisions that he made – said he made the right decisions when it came to Afghanistan.
But while he offers some disappointment of Obama in this book, the Washington Post says that it offers contempt – outright contempt – for Vice President Biden – the decisions he's made on national security. And on the point that Charlie was making, he says that Douglas Lute, the then-lieutenant general in the White House – that there were regular engagements – 'aggressive, suspicious, sometimes condescending and insulting questions of our military leaders.' Did that happen?
DALEY: Well, I never saw such action in the 12 months I was there. Obviously, these are very difficult issues, and there's a lot of tension around the discussions on policy decisions and what's going on in theater. But the people on the ground were the people who were listened to mostly – obviously – because they're the people who have the ultimate responsibility on the ground to act on behalf of protecting our troops and pursuing the policy. But there's – there was healthy dialogue. I never detected any sort of disregard or contempt or outright battle with the generals-
ROSE: So – but so, what are you saying about Bob Gates then – that he – that he got it wrong?
DALEY: Well, that's his opinion – no. Look, that's his opinion. He's unbelievably respected. I have enormous respect for him. But I never heard him express those feelings to the President, or to the situations that I was involved in. And I think it's unfortunate.
O'DONNELL: All right. Bill, thank you.
— Matthew Balan is a News Analyst at the Media Research Center. Follow Matthew Balan on Twitter.