McCain said Bush called him in off the campaign trail, saying a worldwide economic catastrophe was imminent and that he needed his help. "I don't know of any American, when the president of the United States calls you and tells you something like that, who wouldn't respond," McCain said. "And I came back and tried to sit down and work with Republicans and say, 'What can we do?' "
In fact, of course, McCain returned to Washington of his own volition. And in an interview with TPM today outside the Senate chamber, McCain acknowledged as much -- but also appeared to try to drag Obama into the mess.
"[Bush] didn't ask me to suspend my campaign," said McCain. "I suspended my campaign -- as did Senator Obama -- to come back to Washington because the President had told me that we were in a world financial collapse. That's why I did what I did. I always said that consistently."
It's true that Obama went to Washington to join McCain, Bush, and congressional leaders for a White House meeting on the crisis, which, according to multiple accounts, was engineered by McCain. But unlike McCain, Obama never announced he was suspending his campaign. Quite the opposite, in fact: After McCain's announcement, Obama said he still planned to show up for the presidential debate that Friday, arguing that a president needed to be able to do two things at once.
Asked whether he remembered things the way McCain did, Steve Hildebrand, who ran the Obama campaign's field operation, told TPM: "Nope. We proceeded directly ahead, pointing out along the way that McCain was incapable of doing two things at once."
As for his own decision, McCain acknowledged to TPM that he may have given the Republic a different impression about the role Bush played in it. "If I mischaracterized it, or misstated, fine," he continued. "But I have consistently said, ever since the beginning, at the time, that I was coming back because I was told by the President of the United States that we were on the verge of a financial crisis."
Yesterday, Brooke Buchanan, a spokeswoman for the senator, told us the Republic had mischaracterized McCain's comments in the interview. She said that McCain had in fact told the paper only that President Bush had called McCain while the senator was campaigning, to inform him about the crisis -- not that Bush had "called him in off the campaign trail."
McCain is fending off a Republican primary challenge from the conservative former congressman J.D. Hayworth, who has criticized the senator for his support for the bailout. In his interview with the Republic, McCain also tried to play defense on that issue, claiming that he was misled by Henry Paulson and Ben Bernanke into believing that the bailout would focus on the housing market, not Wall Street.
Additional reporting by Brian Beutler