A Project of The Annenberg Public Policy Center

Bush: The Constitution a ‘Goddamned Piece of Paper’?


Q: Did President Bush call the Constitution a “goddamned piece of paper”?

A: Extremely unlikely. The Web site that reported those words has a history of quoting phony sources and retracting bogus stories.

FULL QUESTION

Is it true that President Bush called the Constitution a “goddamned piece of paper?” He has never denied it, and it appears that there were several witnesses.

FULL ANSWER

The report that Bush “screamed” those words at Republican congressional leaders in November 2005 is unsubstantiated, to put it charitably.

We judge that the odds that the report is accurate hover near zero. It comes from Capitol Hill Blue, a Web site that has a history of relying on phony sources, retracting stories and apologizing to its readers.

Update, Feb. 21, 2011: The author of the Capitol Hill Blue story has now withdrawn it. Doug Thompson messaged us to say:

Doug Thompson: This is to let you know that the piece on Bush and the Constitution has been changed and reads:

“This article was based on sources that we thought, at the time, were reliable. We have since discovered reasons to doubt their veracity. For that reason, this article has been removed from our database.”

I no longer stand behind that article or its conclusions and have said so in answers to several recent queries. In addition, I have asked that it be removed from a documentary film.

Thompson elaborated on what led him to retract his story in an item posted on his website Jan. 1, 2011. He also noted that an earlier article, in which he had referred to Bush as a “madman,” has been removed from the site entirely.

The Quote
The report was posted on Dec. 5, 2005. According to author, Doug Thompson, unnamed Republican leaders complained to Bush during a White House meeting about “onerous” portions of the USA Patriot Act, prompting the following:

Capitol Hill Blue: “I don’t give a goddamn,” Bush retorted. “I’m the President and the Commander-in-Chief. Do it my way.”

“Mr. President,” one aide in the meeting said. “There is a valid case that the provisions in this law undermine the Constitution.”

“Stop throwing the Constitution in my face,” Bush screamed back. “It’s just a goddamned piece of paper!”

The Evidence

There’s no record of Bush ever using these words in public and no other news organization has reported him using them privately. Thompson based his report on three sources whom he didn’t name. He gave the date of the quote as “last month,” which would put it sometime in November 2005.

Thompson told us he once removed the story from his Web site when others raised doubts and no other news organization came up with a similar story. But he said he later reinstated it and currently believes it to be true. “I wrote the story and I stand by it,” Thompson said in a telephone interview.

Thompson told us he based the story on e-mail messages from three persons he knows, all of whom claim to have been present at a White House meeting and to have heard Bush make the statement. He said he finds their account credible: “Sometimes I just have to go with my gut, and my gut tells me he did say this.”

The Unreliable Gut
Thompson’s “gut” has proven to be a unreliable guide in the past, however. He has admitted quoting trusted sources in the past who later turned out to be frauds — twice.
  • In 2003 Thompson confessed that he had been “conned big time” by a source who claimed to be a former CIA contract consultant named Terrance J. Wilkinson. Thompson quoted this “source” as claiming to be present at two White House meetings in which Bush ignored intelligence officials’ doubts about reports of Iraq seeking uranium. Thompson said he had been relying on the same man for two decades and had “no doubt” about his credibility, only to discover that “someone has been running a con on me for 20 some years and I fell for it like a little old lady in a pigeon drop scheme.” He erased a number of stories from the site that had been based on information from “Wilkinson” and deleted anonymous quotes given to him by “Wilkinson” from other stories.

Thompson said then: “It will be a long time (and perhaps never) before I trust someone else who comes forward and offers inside information. The next one who does had better be prepared to produce a birth certificate, a driver’s license and his grandmother’s maiden name.”

  • That was two years before the “piece of paper” quote attributed to three unnamed sources. But, far from demanding solid proof, Thompson continued to quote at least one more phony source until 2006, when a blogger started to question the existence of “George Harleigh.” Thompson had for years quoted this supposed former Nixon and Bush appointee. But when no records of such a man could be found, Thompson admitted he had never even met him:

Doug Thompson (July 26, 2006): We would get quotes via email on current topics. He claimed to be a retired political science professor from Southern Illinois University and an appointee of both the Nixon and Bush administration. I was told he had been checked out. But he wasn’t who he said he was and we used his phony name in stories.

This time Thompson says he revised or deleted 83 stories that had relied on information from “Harleigh” or quoted him.

In his defense, Thompson says: “[The] 83 articles that we revised or removed represent less than 1 percent of the total production of this Web site over the past 13 years. While errors must never be condoned, a 99+ percent of accuracy is a percentage I can live with. ”

But we also note that Thompson described his own reporting habits this way:

Doug Thompson (July 26, 2006): I started taking more chances with stories, jumping on ones with sketchy sources, always trying to outdo the last “big” story. I had people willing to help me and they would send me info that I used often on their word alone.

. . . I wrote stories based on emails from sources I never met. I would meet self-proclaimed “important people” in out-of-the way bars, taking what they told me at face value. Washington is a breeding ground for phonies and wannabes. Too often I printed what they told me because I was so full of myself that I was sure it was true and did not require further verification.

By Thompson’s own account, these were the habits still in place when he reported the “piece of paper” quote in 2005.

We also note that Thompson expresses extreme personal hostility toward Bush, calling him in one recent article a “madman,” a “despot,” and “a man without honor, a leader without conscience and a human being without a shred of decency or humanity.”

Update, Feb. 21, 2011: Thompson states that he has now removed that piece from his website.

Thompson is a former Republican congressional aide and political consultant. He was manager of the National Association of Realtors political action committee for several years, ending in 1992. But his experience as a journalist prior to launching Capitol Hill Blue was limited to working as a local reporter at the Roanoke Times and a columnist at The Telegraph (Alton, Ill.), ending in 1981. He currently lives and works from his home near the town of Floyd in the Blue Ridge Mountains of Virginia, nearly 290 miles away from the White House.

Good Advice
Capitol Hill Blue does offer one sound bit of advice, under the heading of “Just the FAQs (Frequently Asked Questions):”

Capitol Hill Blue: Should we believe what you print simply because you say it is so?

Absolutely not. You should read many publications and draw your own conclusions.

We agree with that. Even taking Thompson at his word, and dismissing the possibility that he just made up his quotes and sources, we conclude that the “piece of paper” quote is probably about as genuine as “George Harleigh” or the phony CIA “source” whom Thompson quoted in 2003.

Sources

Doug Thompson. “Bush on the Constitution: ‘It’s just a goddamned piece of paper.’” CapitolHillBlue.com. 5 Dec. 2005.

Doug Thompson. “Conned big time.” 9 July 2003.

Doug Thompson. “Screwing the Pooch.” 25 July 2006.

Doug Thompson. “The eyes of a madman.” CapitolHillBlue.com. 6 Dec 2007. [Later removed from the site.]