WASHINGTON — Texas authorities closed the investigation into Vice President Dick Cheney's hunting accident Thursday without bringing any charges. President Bush said Cheney had handled the situation "just fine."
"I'm satisfied with the explanation he gave," Bush said, making his first public comments about Cheney's accidental shooting of 78-year-old attorney Harry Whittington while aiming for a quail. Bush said the vice president's explanation was "strong and powerful."
The administration was eager to put to rest a public relations firestorm arising from Cheney's failure to publicly disclose Saturday's accident until the next day. The episode had knocked the White House off stride and distracted attention from Bush's agenda.
Bush said critics were drawing "the wrong conclusion about a tragic accident" by saying it depicted the White House as overly secretive. He raised no objection to the delay in the disclosure of the shooting — although senior White House aides had argued unsuccessfully for the announcement to be made more quickly and for Cheney to speak out sooner.
"The vice president was involved in a terrible accident, and it profoundly affected him," Bush said in an Oval Office photo opportunity. "Yesterday when he was here in the Oval Office, I saw the deep concern he had about a person who he wounded."
In Texas, the Kenedy County Sheriff's Department issued a report supporting Cheney's account of the accident that occurred on a sprawling private ranch. Deputies visited the scene, got written affidavits from at least four other members of the hunting party and interviewed Cheney and Whittington, the report said.
Whittington "explained foremost there was no alcohol during the hunt, and everyone was wearing the proper hunting attire of blaze orange," reported Chief Deputy Gilberto San Miguel Jr.
Cheney spoke to a deputy Sunday morning at the ranch, and Whittington was questioned from his hospital bed Monday, the report said.
The sheriff's report said Whittington declined the deputies' request to record the interview because he said his voice was raspy. Before a nurse asked the officers to "hurry up so Mr. Whittington could rest," he repeatedly insisted the shooting "was just an accident" and expressed concern that all the media attention would give hunting in Texas a bad image, the report said.
Sheriff's dispatcher Diana Mata, speaking for the department, said the case was closed and no charges would be filed. She said Sheriff Ramon Salinas III, a Democrat, would have no comment on the report.
Whittington was hit with shotgun pellets in the face, neck and chest. He was in stable condition in a Corpus Christi hospital, two days after suffering a mild heart attack caused by a shotgun pellet that traveled to his heart.
Cheney headed out of Washington Thursday, traveling to his home state of Wyoming after five days of intense scrutiny about the accident. He planned to give a previously scheduled speech to the state Legislature today, reflecting on his Wyoming roots and promoting the Bush agenda.
Cheney told the story publicly Wednesday in an interview with Fox News Channel — his only public statement on the accident. Cheney said it was "one of the worst days of my life," while accepting full blame for the accident and defending his decision to delay the public disclosure.
The White House has been barraged with questions about why Cheney waited until the next day to reveal what happened — and then only through a friend hunting with him who called the local newspaper.
Bush seemed annoyed when pressed about whether Cheney had disclosed the shooting in a timely way. "I'm satisfied with the explanation he gave," the president said tersely.
"It was a deeply traumatic moment for him and, obviously, it was a tragic moment for Harry Whittington," Bush said.
Bush said Whittington is "a fine man" whom he knew from his days as governor of Texas.
San Miguel wrote in his report that he first heard about the hunting accident when Salinas called him about 6:30 p.m. CST Saturday, within an hour of the shooting, to say that he should report to the Armstrong Ranch Sunday at 8 a.m. to receive more information.