President George W. Bush lied outright to reporters in Mississippi Monday when he claimed he did not know embattled Federal Emergency Management Agency director Mike Brown resigned.

In fact, Bush – who over the weekend told Department of Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff to “get rid of Brown any way you have to” – took a call from Chertoff while en route to the Gulf Coast aboard Air Force One. Chertoff told Bush he had Brown’s resignation in hand but the President ordered the Homeland Security secretary to delay announcement of Brown’s resignation until after the New Orleans photo op because he didn’t want his tour upstaged.

White House sources confirmed the timeline Monday night, saying the President was “caught off guard” when a miffed Brown announced the resignation on his own while Bush was in New Orleans and reporters started asking questions.

When asked about Brown’s resignation, Bush lied, saying he didn’t know about it.

“Maybe you know something I don’t know. I’ve been working,” the president responded to reporters on an inspection tour of damage in Gulfport, Miss. Bush said he planned to talk with Chertoff from Air Force One on the flight back to Washington.

But White House sources say Bush had already talked to Chertoff on the flight down and knew Brown’s resignation was in hand. What he didn’t know was that Brown had announced it to the public.

Even if Bush had not known before landing, he would have been informed as soon as the news broke, White House aides say. White House procedures call for such information to be relayed to the President immediately. Even in an armored vehicle moving through the flooded streets of New Orelans the Presidential detail is never “out of touch,” aides say.

“A breaking story would be relayed to the President’s entourage immediately,” a White House staffer said. “The President is never really out of touch.”

On the flight down, Bush told Chertoff to get materials ready to announce appointment of R. David Paulison, head of the Federal Emergency Management Agency’s emergency preparedness force, to lead the beleaguered agency. Paulison’s appointment was announced as soon as Bush returned to Washington.

“Paulison was vetted (checked out) over the weekend after the decision was made to get rid of Brown,” a Bush insider says.

Publicly, the White House claims Brown “was not forced out” of his job with FEMA but sources within the Bush administration tell Capitol Hill Blue that the President ordered Chertoff to “take whatever means necessary” to get rid of Brown. Chertoff reportedly told Brown, already under scrutiny for padding his resume and biography on the FEMA web site, he would face an internal audit of his travel expenses and other activities while on the job.

So Brown took a bullet, becoming the first of what may be several scapegoats for the Bush administration’s failure to respond quickly enough to the Hurricane Katrina disaster.

“I’m turning in my resignation today,” Brown said. “I think it’s in the best interest of the agency and the best interest of the president to do that and get the media focused on the good things that are going on, instead of me.”

“Brown is just the first,” says a White House insider. “Others will follow.”