Q Mr. President, do you think it’s a proper use of government funds to pay commentators to promote your policies?
THE PRESIDENT: No.
Q Are you going to order that —
THE PRESIDENT: Therefore, I will not pay you to — (laughter.)
Q Fair enough. Are you ordering that there be an end to that practice?
THE PRESIDENT: Yes, I am. I expect my Cabinet Secretaries to make sure that that practice doesn’t go forward. There needs to be independence. And Mr. Armstrong Williams admitted he made a mistake. And we didn’t know about this in the White House, and there needs to be a nice, independent relationship between the White House and the press, the administration and the press. So, no, we shouldn’t be going for it.
Q Well, Mr. Williams made a mistake —
THE PRESIDENT: Who?
Q Mr. Williams made a mistake. Did the Department of Education make a mistake?
THE PRESIDENT: Yes. They did.
Q What will happen to the people that made this decision?
THE PRESIDENT: We’ve got new leadership going to the Department of Education. But all our Cabinet Secretaries must realize that we will not be paying commentators to advance our agenda. Our agenda ought to be able to stand on its own two feet. I’m confident you’ll be, over the course of the next four years, willing to give our different policies an objective look — won’t you? Yes, I can see that.
USA Today, today:
[Department of Education inspector general John] Higgins concluded that top Education Department officials, including then-Secretary Rod Paige, were guilty of “bad management” and “poor judgment” but did not violate contract law.
Higgins also found that David Dunn, a special assistant to President Bush, participated in at least four conversations about the Williams contract with Education Department officials last summer.
The conversations, the report says, took place around the time the department renewed a deal that called for Williams to use his syndicated TV show and newspaper column to promote Bush’s education policy, No Child Left Behind.
During at least two of those conversations, Education officials voiced “strong” concerns about “the inherent conflict of Mr. Williams’ role as both a public relations executive and commentator,” the report says. The Education officials, deputy director of public affairs D.J. Nordquist and chief of staff Anne Radice, told the inspector general that Dunn “agreed with their concerns,” the report says. Even so, the contract was renewed.
The inspector general’s findings run counter to a statement made by Bush on Jan. 26, about three weeks after USA TODAY first disclosed the deal with Williams. At a news conference, Bush said of the contract, “We didn’t know about this in the White House.”
Whether Dunn relayed the concerns about the Williams deal to others at the White House remains unclear. The Bush administration refused to allow Higgins to question Dunn about his time as a presidential policy adviser. White House spokeswoman Dana Perino said the inspector general lacks the authority to interview White House staffers.
Higgins was allowed to ask Dunn about work he did in early 2004 — when Dunn was temporarily assigned to the Education Department to oversee promoting No Child. The warnings to Dunn about the Williams contract came after Dunn had returned to the White House, the report indicates.
Education Secretary Margaret Spellings, who also served as an adviser to the president and took over the department after the Williams deal became public, <b?said Friday that she doesn't recall whether Dunn mentioned the contract to her.
She called the deal “stupid (and) … ill-advised. It showed a lack of judgment.” Spellings subsequently hired Dunn as her chief of staff. He declined interview requests.