Published February 17, 2006
WASHINGTON – President Bush said Thursday that Vice President Dick Cheney responded "just fine" to questions about the accidental shooting of a friend during a hunting trip.
"I thought his explanation yesterday was a very strong and powerful explanation, and I am satisfied with the explanation he gave," Bush said during a meeting with Colombian President Alvaro Uribe.
Calling it a "terrible accident," Bush said Cheney is a man who likes to hunt and "heard a bird flush and he turned and pulled the trigger and saw his friend get wounded." Bush called the incident a "deeply traumatic moment" for both Cheney and his victim, Austin attorney Harry Whittington.
Bush said that Cheney had clearly been "profoundly affected" by the incident.
"Yesterday, when he was here in the Oval Office, I saw the deep concern he had about a person who he wounded," Bush said.
Earlier in the day, the Kenedy County Sheriff's Department in Texas closed its investigation and reported that no charges will be filed against the vice president. Its report largely supported Cheney's account of events. Whittington, who was interviewed in the hospital, assured investigators no one was drinking when the accident occurred and everyone was wearing bright orange safety gear, according to the report.
In an exclusive interview Wednesday, a contrite Cheney told FOX News that he alone was responsible for Whittington's hospitalization.
"Ultimately I'm the guy who pulled the trigger that fired the round that hit Harry," Cheney said in his first interview since the incident. "I'm the guy who pulled the trigger and shot my friend, and that's something I'll never forget."
The vice president also seemed to express deep remorse for injuring Whittington, an Austin attorney and longtime acquaintance.
"The image of him falling is something I will never be able to get out my mind," Cheney said. "It was one of the worst days of my life."
News of the accident, which occurred in south Texas, was first reported by the Corpus Christi Caller-Times. That newspaper got the scoop from Katharine Armstrong, owner of the ranch and eyewitness to the shooting.
That scoop got the White House press corps fuming that they didn't find out sooner about the shooting. At the White House on Thursday, spokesman Scott McClellan said despite the squall, the American public is satisfied with the vice president's response.
"At this point, what we are doing is looking forward to the future, not looking back to the past. The American people saw yesterday that the vice president is very concerned about his friend Harry Whittington. They saw his concern and compassion for a friend of his who he shot in a hunting accident. As he said, it was one of the worst days of his life."
The president thought the vice president "clearly explained the rationale behind" not revealing the incident sooner, McClellan said, avoiding answering directly whether Bush thought the shooting accident was publicly disclosed in a timely manner.
A Rasmussen telephone survey of 1,000 likely voters taken Tuesday and Wednesday night showed that 57 percent believe Cheney's accident was "just one of those very embarrassing things that happens to all of us" while 27 percent believe that it raises serious questions about his ability to serve as vice president.
The poll, which is done electronically through computerized phone calls and has a 3 point margin of error, said 66 percent of Americans had followed the story somewhat or very closely. Concern about the vice president's accident was also expectedly divided by party with Republicans overwhelmingly unconcerned and Democrats split over the implications of the accident.
Whittington suffered a minor heart attack Tuesday morning due to a birdshot pellet that had migrated to his heart. On Thursday, hospital officials said, the 78-year-old, who was moved to the intensive care unit because of concerns for his privacy, is in great spirits and stir-crazy to get out of the facility.
"He's in stable condition doing extremely well," hospital spokesman Peter Banko said during an afternoon press conference, adding that Whittington had been in a "joking mood" that morning.
Bush said he knew Whittington since before he became president, when he was governor of Texas living in Austin. He said Whittington had been involved in state politics for a long time.
The president added that now that Cheney has responded to requests for comment about the accident, "our concerns are directed toward the recovery of our friend.
"My concern is for Harry, and I know the vice president feels the same way," Bush said.
'It Was Not Harry's Fault'
In the interview, Cheney described how he, Whittington and one other person separated from the 10-person hunting party out Saturday afternoon at Armstrong Ranch. Armstrong Ranch is a 50,000-acre property.
The hunting party went off on their own to pursue a covey of quail. All three fired their shotguns, but Whittington could not immediately find his bird. He walked away from Cheney and the other hunter to look for it.
Cheney then heard quail moving to his right.
"I turned and shot at the bird, and at that second, saw Harry standing there. Didn't know he was there," Cheney said. "I saw him fall, basically. It had happened so fast."
The vice president added that Whittington was standing in a gully so only his upper body was visible, and that the sun was facing Cheney, which "affected the vision, too, I'm sure."
Whittington, whom Cheney described as an acquaintance he's known for more than 30 years, was hit with more than 200 birdshot pellets from an estimated 30 yards away.
Upon realizing he had shot his hunting companion, Cheney rushed over to find a bleeding and dazed Whittington lying on his back with only one eye open.
"I said, 'Harry, I had no idea you were there,'" Cheney recounted. "He didn't respond. He was — he was breathing, conscious at that point, but he didn't — he was, I'm sure, stunned, obviously, still trying to figure out what had happened to him."
A physician's assistant traveling with Cheney rushed to Whittington's aid and accompanied the injured man to the hospital. Cheney said he did not go because the ambulance was too crowded.
Cheney said he had one beer at lunch, but that no alcohol was consumed during the late afternoon. Law enforcement authorities said alcohol was not a factor.
Asked Thursday whether Whittington's family asked the hospital not to release a blood alcohol content report, Banko said, "No comment." When reporters tried to follow up, declaring that his response sent up a "red flag," Banko answered: "You're making a lot to-do about nothing on certain areas."
Earlier this week, the White House and Armstrong implied that Whittington did not follow hunting protocol because he didn't announce to Cheney and the other hunter that he had returned from retrieving his kill.
"It was not Harry's fault," Cheney said. "You cannot blame anybody else."
Cheney said he first spoke to White House chief of staff Andy Card on Sunday morning and discussed the shooting with Bush for the first time Monday. He said he never personally spoke with Deputy Chief of Staff Karl Rove, but that Rove and Armstrong, who are also longtime friends, discussed the incident.
Cheney Tries to Recover PR Fumble
One thing for which Cheney was not apologetic was the way the news was delivered to the media. Armstrong, a private citizen, went to The Corpus Christi Caller-Times, a small, local paper. The Times published the story around 3 p.m. EST Sunday, and it was then picked up by the national news media.
McClellan refused to answer Thursday whether Bush encouraged Cheney to go public on Wednesday.
"Obviously there are internal discussions that we have, and I'll leave those internal," he said.
The vice president's office issued two brief written statements acknowledging the shooting on Monday and Tuesday. Cheney said he and Armstrong agreed to let her take the lead because she was a witness and that she was the immediate past head of the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department.
"I thought that made good sense because you can get as accurate a story as possible from somebody who knows and understands hunting," Cheney said. "Then it would immediately go up to the wires and be posted on the Web site, which is the way it went out. I thought that was the right call. I still do."
Cheney added: "I don't know who you could get better as the basic source for the story than the witness who saw the whole thing."
Press Corps Cry Fest?
Though Cheney answered many of the questions surrounding his weekend hunting accident, not all who watched his explanation were completely satisfied.
"[Cheney] did what he needed to do, but these guys have taken secrecy to a whole new level," said Jim Manley, senior adviser to Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., who had urged the vice president to hold a press conference on the issue.
Others following the vice president's release of information about the accidental shooting last Saturday said the controversy surrounding the murky timeline of events may hurt the Bush administration. Cheney didn't speak publicly about the incident until more than 72 hours after the shooting.
"You can second-guess this all you want ... but there's no question that the four days that elapsed that we had this mini-storm that blew up … was embarrassing for the vice president and embarrassing for the president," said David Gergen, a presidential adviser for several Democratic and Republican presidents.
Gergen suggested that the impact on the White House may be compounded by the fact that the administration is simultaneously getting slammed for its lethargic response to Hurricane Katrina, among other issues.
"You can slice and dice this thing any way you want, but I still think it's politically damaging for the administration," Gergen said.
But critics of the critics said the story was just another way for Democrats to pile on the White House.
"The rest of this is just an attack by the Democrats and jealousy, frankly, by the White House press room," said strategist Terry Holt, former political adviser to the Republican National Committee.
"Anybody who's ever been hunting has to shudder that this could happen to them," Holt added. "The fact of the matter is, the vice president just went through a painful thing that was even more painful for his friend."
Hank Sheinkopf, former media manager for the Gore-Clinton campaign, said that while Cheney's interview may have led some to have sympathy for the vice president, the shooting, Katrina criticism and other administration blights like prison abuse at Abu Ghraib in Iraq are "not of the norm. It shows a White House out of control … it was a public relations disaster."
To that, Holt responded: "I couldn't stitch those three stories together with two needles."
House Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi said she thinks Cheney's media fumble is one example of what she describes as "another manifestation of the arrogance of power of the White House."
"They don't come clean with American people. They think they are above the law and above accountability to the American people. They can grant or withhold information," the California lawmaker said Thursday. "Whether as it is in this case with this unfortunate shooting or whether it's giving information about [Jack] Abramoff and his connections to the White House or whether it's about Katrina and who knew what when and what could have been done to save lives in the time of Katrina."
Cheney hinted that such criticisms were elitist, and that big-media reporters outside of Texas would not have been able to competently report on the story.
"It was also important, I thought, to get the story out as accurately as possible, and this is a complicated story that, frankly, most reporters would never have dealt with before," Cheney said.
He later added: "I had a bit of the feeling that the press corps was upset because, to some extent, it was about them — they didn't like the idea that we called the Corpus Christi Caller-Times instead of The New York Times." In any event, it is difficult to see how Cheney's relationship with the press — or the public — will recover.
"He's a leader who doesn't like reporters," said media critic Eric Burns. "I don't know that there's anything about this that reflects badly on his leadership abilities, but I think there's something about this that reflects badly on decision-making, and decision-making is part of leadership."
FOXNews.com's Sharon Kehnemui Liss, Liza Porteus and Jane Roh contributed to this report.