As the White House Turns

By Dan Froomkin
Special to
Wednesday, March 31, 2004; 10:58 AM

The White House spectacularly reversed course early yesterday and agreed to let national security adviser Condoleezza Rice testify in public, under oath, before the 9/11 commission. President Bush and Vice President Cheney -- together -- will also meet with the entire commission, in private.

What's behind this U-turn? And what's around the next corner? Read on for the skinny.

Mike Allen and Dan Eggen write in The Washington Post: "The decision represented an effort to quiet a controversy that threatened to undercut Bush's credibility on his handling of terrorism, a credential that is vital to his reelection strategy. It also resulted from his aides' conclusion that the showdown with the commission was drowning out White House messages on other issues. A top Bush political adviser called the controversy "a thick layer of smoke that you couldn't pierce with any other messages." . . .

"Administration officials said Karl Rove, Bush's senior adviser, and some other top aides had been arguing for some time that Rice should testify. . . .

"Bush discussed possible options during phone calls from his Texas ranch Saturday, and Sunday he directed [White House Counsel Alberto R.] Gonzales and Chief of Staff Andrew H. Card Jr. to find a way for Rice to satisfy the commission without setting a dangerous precedent."

Rice and Eggen also note: "The White House accommodation marked a setback for a three-year effort, led by Cheney, to enhance the powers of the presidency in relation to those of the legislative branch. In addition to using the separation-of-powers argument, the White House had also contended that such an appearance could inhibit the candor of the advice that would be provided by advisers to future presidents."

Philip Shenon and Elisabeth Bumiller write in the New York Times that commission officials "said Mr. Gonzales made the offer after the commission earlier in the day turned down a more limited proposal to allow the panel to interview Ms. Rice in private for a second time and then release a transcript of the session to the public."

Who else's fingerprints are on the turnaround? I wrote in Monday's column about the return of Karen Hughes.

Shenon and Bumiller spoke to Hughes. "The president recognized that the debate about the process -- about who and how and where and whether it was public or private or sworn or unsworn -- was overwhelming the facts of the matter," Hughes told them, adding that the president, while spending the weekend at his ranch in Texas, "basically said, 'Let's figure out how we can do this.' "

Judy Keen and Mimi Hall write in USA Today: "A top administration official who would speak only if not named said Bush advisers concluded that Rice can effectively counter [former counterterrorism chief Richard A.] Clarke in a high-profile public forum. The official also said polls showing Bush leading Sen. John Kerry, the likely Democratic presidential nominee, made this an opportune time to yield to the commission's demands."

Kenneth R. Bazinet and James Gordon Meek write in the New York Daily News: "It became clear that '60 Minutes' didn't do the trick," said a Bush source. "We waited to hear how it would play and listened to the followup questions [Monday] and it was clear."

Thomas M. DeFrank, also in the New York Daily News, writes: "Bush officials privately concede that Rice's peripatetic media schedule in the past week undermined the constitutional argument.

" 'Of course she's going to testify,' one Bush adviser quipped yesterday. 'She's running out of television shows to go on.' "

NBC's David Gregory said "By week's end, the White House was fueling a story it didn't want."

Here's the text of Bush's remarks announcing his reversal; and the video. Here's the letter from Gonzales to the commission outlining all the conditions.

Is There a Pattern Here?

David E. Sanger writes in the New York Times that Bush's decision to reverse course "was part of a distinct pattern that has emerged inside this highly secretive White House.

"The first reaction to most demands for outside inquiries, or for details about energy policy decisions or intelligence concerning Iraqi weapons or Nigerian uranium, has been to build walls: Mr. Bush, or more often Mr. Cheney in his stead, asserts a clear, inviolate principle that the president and his advisers need the freedom to gather information, develop policy and exchange ideas in private.

"But eventually other forces come into play. Gradually pressure builds until Mr. Bush's advisers -- including Ms. Rice herself in this case, several officials said -- determine that the cost is too high. . . .

"The exception to this dynamic has been Mr. Cheney himself, who, despite the shaking of heads within the White House, has steadfastly resisted all calls that he release information from the administration's energy task force, which he headed."

Janet Hook writes in the Los Angeles Times: "President Bush is famous for digging in his heels when the powers of his office could be compromised, a trait that supporters cite as evidence of his strong leadership.

"But some of his most loyal supporters -- Republicans in Congress -- were relieved Tuesday when Bush gave in on what he had once said was a legal and constitutional principle of the highest order."

What's Next?

Rice's testimony could come as early as next week.

Ken Fireman writes in Newsday that "while Bush's move extricated him from that immediate problem, it will expose Rice to a high-profile grilling under oath about the many conflicts between her account of the period before Sept. 11 and Clarke's -- as well as Rice statements that have been called into question by documents that surfaced later."

Dan Eggen writes in The Washington Post: "Members of the commission investigating the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks said yesterday that they will closely question national security adviser Condoleezza Rice on the claims made last week by former White House counterterrorism coordinator Richard A. Clarke: that the White House did not urgently react to warnings of an impending terrorist attack and waited too long to develop a response plan."

Mimi Hall and Judy Keen of USA Today offer "a preview of the questions commissioners are likely to ask Rice" including "Was the administration so focused on Iraq that it neglected to heed Clarke's warnings about al-Qaeda attacks?" and "Why did it take eight months to develop an al-Qaeda policy that wasn't much different from the Clinton approach?"

Calvin Woodward of the Associated Press suggests that the commission is likely to focus on the confusion created by Rice herself, whose public statements "have not always been consistent with statements by others in the Bush team, and sometimes she has seemed to be at odds with herself."

NBC's Tim Russert says what White House officials "hope Dr. Rice will do is lay to rest once and for all that this administration was not fully engaged in the war on terror before Sept. 11. They think she's well practiced and very poised and will really resonate with the country."

Russert predicts: "If you like George Bush, you'll agree with Rice, if you don't, you'll agree with Clarke."

Side by Side

Maura Reynolds and Greg Miller of the Los Angeles Times see Bush and Cheney being questioned at the same time as a way of "reducing the possibility that the nation's top two officials might give differing responses and potentially enabling them to confer before answering."

Democratic commission member Richard Ben-Veniste talked with Paula Zahn on CNN last night. Here's an excerpt:

"ZAHN: The White House also agreeing for the vice president to testify together with the president. Why didn't the commission insist that they testify separately?

"BEN-VENISTE: Well, at this point, you remember, Paula, that the president first had said he would only give us an hour and then only meet with two out of the 10 commissioners. They've come a long way. I don't know, frankly, why they are asking to have this interview conducted in tandem.

"ZAHN: Do you think it's weird?

"BEN-VENISTE: Pardon me?

"ZAHN: Do you think it's strange?

"BEN-VENISTE: Well, I think it is strange, yes. But, frankly, I think we can direct our questions to the appropriate witness. If this is the format that they insist upon, then so be it. But at least we will have 10 commissioners. No one will be excluded among the commission. And I think that's appropriate. No such exclusions were suggested, much less required, by either former President Clinton or former Vice President Gore."

Bush 41 Gets Emotional

Reuters reports: "An emotional former President George H.W. Bush has defended his son's Iraq war and lashed out at White House critics.

"It is 'deeply offensive and contemptible' to hear 'elites and intellectuals on the campaign trail' dismiss progress in Iraq since last year's overthrow of Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein, the elder Bush said in a speech to the National Petrochemical and Refiners Association annual convention.

"The former president appeared to fight back tears as he complained about media coverage of the younger Bush that he called 'something short of fair and balanced.' "

" 'It hurts an awful lot more when it's your son that is being criticized than when they used to get all over my case,' said Bush, who has often complained about media coverage of both Bush presidencies."

Tracy Connor of the New York Daily News sums it up this way:

"Lay off my kid!

"That's the message former President George Herbert Walker Bush delivered yesterday, fighting back tears as he defended his son and ripped into his rivals.

"But he sounded like a new father protecting his toddler from a playground bully when he addressed an oil-industry group in San Antonio."

Gas Attack

Dana Milbank and Jim VandeHei write in The Washington Post: "President Bush, under criticism from Democratic challenger John F. Kerry for high gasoline prices, said Tuesday that Democrats want to increase gas taxes and released a new ad accusing Kerry of supporting a 50-cent-per-gallon hike."

Kerry, meanwhile, stopped at a Shell station in San Diego ($2.35 a gallon for unleaded) and said: "Instead of revealing a new set of attack ads, I think Dick Cheney ought to reveal who the oil executives are that he met in secret with to set the oil policy of the United States of America."

Jackie Calmes and John J. Fialka of the Wall Street Journal write that "President Bush is confronting the politically charged question: Why hasn't he done more to try to hold down oil prices?

"The short answer: He is finding, as have presidents before him, that limiting Americans' costs at the pump isn't as easy as the former oilman made it sound when he ran for office four years ago."

The Washington Post's Howard Kurtz dissects the Bush/Cheney gas ad.

On Wisconsin

Scott Lindlaw of the Associated Press writes that in his ninth trip to this particular swing state, "President Bush said Tuesday he saw signs that Wisconsin's economy is stirring back to life, crediting trade and tax cuts as key factors and painting Democrat John Kerry as the enemy of both."

Here are Bush's remarks on the economy, and remarks to first responders.

The Politics of Declassification

Dana Priest writes in The Washington Post: "The Bush administration's uneven decision-making on which sensitive documents it declassifies has prompted criticism that the White House is selectively releasing information to justifies its foreign policy decisions and respond to political pressure."

Last week, Priest writes, "the CIA began reviewing for declassification testimony that former White House counterterrorism czar Richard A. Clarke gave last year to the congressional panel investigating the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks. . . .

"Declassification of material for political reasons 'is not unheard of, but it's not routine, and every administration confronts it,' said the nation's top classification manager, J. William Leonard, director of the government's Information Security Oversight Office. 'But you don't have to be a whiz to figure out these are unprecedented times we're living in.' "

Veto Threat

Jim Abrams of the Associated Press writes: "The White House on Tuesday threatened to veto a massive House highway spending bill, rejecting efforts by House GOP leaders to find common ground between the administration's demand for fiscal discipline and lawmaker pleas for more road-building money."

Foreign Leader Watch

Reuters reports: "More than three-quarters of German business and political leaders favor Democrat John Kerry for U.S. president over George W. Bush, according to a survey by a leading business magazine published on Wednesday."

Recess Watch

Thomas Ferraro reports for Reuters that "Senate Minority Leader Tom Daschle on Tuesday vowed to block all of President Bush's judicial nominees unless Bush promises to stop seating federal judges while the chamber is on vacation. . . .

"A White House spokeswoman replied that Bush has no intentions of giving up his constitutionally mandated power to make recess appointments, particularly when used to circumvent 'unprecedented Democratic obstructionism.' "

Book v. Book

Walter Shapiro writes in USA Today about the "true battle of the books, pitting Clarke, the long-time White House counterterrorism coordinator, against Hughes, the president's former communications director. Clarke has dominated the headlines for the last 10 days with his high-profile TV appearances and his emotional testimony before the commission investigating the Sept. 11 attacks. But now Hughes, as she has so often in the past, is riding to Bush's rescue with her own gauzy portrait of the president published Tuesday."

Today's Calendar

Bush makes remarks and has lunch with members of the baseball Hall of Fame in the State Dining Room.

Laura Bush and Marta Sahagun de Fox, wife of Mexican President Vicente Fox visit, Martha's Table Community Center in Washington, where they will meet with volunteers and children.

The president and the first lady attend a Bush/Cheney dinner at the Marriott Wardman Park Hotel.

© 2004