Rearranging the Chairs

By Dan Froomkin
Special to washingtonpost.com
Monday, October 24, 2005; 1:15 PM

White House staffers are a nervous lot these days.

Not only are they waiting uneasily to see if special prosecutor Patrick J. Fitzgerald's investigation claims any of their hides this week. But there are signs that whatever personnel moves might be necessitated by the indictment of top officials could be the beginning of a bigger upheaval among the president's advisers.

The Mood

All eyes are on the president. And apparently, he's good and mad.

Thomas M. DeFrank writes in a New York Daily News cover story: "Facing the darkest days of his presidency, President Bush is frustrated, sometimes angry and even bitter, his associates say.

"The specter of losing [Karl] Rove, his only truly irreplaceable assistant, lies at the heart of Bush's distress. But a string of political reversals, including growing opposition to the Iraq war, Hurricane Katrina's aftermath and Harriet Miers' bungled Supreme Court nomination, have also exacted a personal toll.

"Presidential advisers and friends say Bush is a mass of contradictions: cheerful and serene, peevish and melancholy, occasionally lapsing into what he once derided as the 'blame game.' . . .

" 'The President is just unhappy in general and casting blame all about,' said one Bush insider. 'Andy [Card, the chief of staff] gets his share. Karl gets his share. Even [Vice President] Cheney gets his share. And the press gets a big share.'

"The vice president remains Bush's most trusted political confidant. Even so, the Daily News has learned Bush has told associates Cheney was overly involved in intelligence issues in the runup to the Iraq war that have been seized on by Bush critics.

"Bush is so dismayed that 'the only person escaping blame is the President himself,' said a sympathetic official, who delicately termed such self-exoneration 'illogical.' "

Richard W. Stevenson and David Johnston write in the New York Times that the uncertainty about Fitzgerald's intentions "has left much of official Washington and nearly everyone who works at or with the White House in a state of high anxiety. That has been compounded by the widespread belief that there are aspects of the case beyond those directly involving Mr. Rove and [vice presidential chief of staff I. Lewis 'Scooter'] Libby that remain all but unknown outside of Mr. Fitzgerald's office. Among them is the mystery of who first provided the C.I.A. officer's identity to the syndicated columnist Robert D. Novak, who published it on July 14, 2003.

"The negative effects on Mr. Bush's presidency if his senior aides were indicted, said James A. Thurber, director of the Center for Congressional and Presidential Studies at American University in Washington, would be as great as the positive effects of Mr. Bush's handling of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks."

Elisabeth Bumiller writes in the New York Times: " 'The general mood is one of grim determination to conduct business as usual, even though it's clearly not possible,' said a Republican close to Mr. Rove who spoke on the condition of anonymity because he did not want to antagonize the White House by talking about internal thinking. 'It colors the mood, it colors everything that people do, say and think about.' "

Here's what Tim Russert had to say about the mood in the White House on NBC's Today Show this morning: "Some people are very very nervous, very depressed; others are more cautious."

Personnel Moves?

Ken Herman writes for Cox News Service that "in a potential separation once considered as inconceivable as Sonny without Cher, Bush faces the prospect of navigating the most challenging part of his political career without Rove at his side. . . .

"Those close to Bush and Rove are squeamish about talking on the record about the sensitive situation involving their friends in the White House.

" 'It's a hypothetical,' the adviser said of the possibility that it could happen. 'Unfortunately it's a very real hypothetical.' "

Donna Cassata writes for the Associated Press that "one White House official, noting that Bush's senior staff is tired of the long hours and increasing pressure, has told colleagues it might be best if everyone closest to the president resign and clear the way for new blood and fresh perspectives.

"White House chief of staff Andrew Card has been on the job since January 2001, a mark of longevity for Bush compared with Presidents Reagan and Clinton, who each had four chiefs of staff through two terms. Even Bush's father, George H.W. Bush, had three chiefs of staff in four years as president."

John D. McKinnon and Christopher Cooper write in the Wall Street Journal: "With special prosecutor Patrick Fitzgerald appearing close to indicting top White House officials in the CIA leak investigation, the probe is likely to accelerate second-term turnover in the Bush administration."

The big question, McKinnon and Cooper write, "is whether Mr. Bush will continue relying on his loyal inner circle or will have to reach out to Republican leaders elsewhere to help rebuild his administration's credibility.

"Given Mr. Bush's tendency to promote from within, some experts say it is probable that the president will stay the course. They say that if Mr. Rove has to go, it is likely that Mr. Bush will seek to bring in someone with a long track record of serving him, such as Ken Mehlman, his former political director and now chairman of the Republican National Committee. Also mentioned is Ed Gillespie, the former party chairman who recently shepherded the Supreme Court nomination of Chief Justice John Roberts.

"Other possible replacements for Messrs. Rove or Card include Donald Evans, former Commerce secretary and a longtime Bush friend from Texas; Josh Bolten, an aide of long tenure who is Mr. Bush's budget director; Clay Johnson, a top management official in the budget office; Karen Hughes, his former communications chief who is now a top State Department official; and Marc Racicot, a former RNC chairman."

Talking with Lou Dobbs, former presidential adviser David Gergen said Thursday on CNN: "I'll tell you what Ronald Reagan did in a somewhat different circumstance. . . . And that is, when the wheels came off for him on . . . the Iran Contra affair, halfway through his second term, and looked like he couldn't govern for a while, you know what he did?

"He cleaned house. He brought in a whole new team. He brought in Howard Baker and Ken Duberstein and Colin Powell and some others to form and put together a new team in the White House. He got a fresh start."

Linda Feldmann writes in the Christian Science Monitor that second terms "tend to benefit from personnel changes at the White House.

"The point, presidential observers say, is to bring in new people with fresh ideas and energy. Given the long hours -- predawn until after dusk -- White House jobs can lead to burnout; before Bush, the average tenure was 18 months."

The White House Talking Points

Stevenson and Johnston write in the New York Times: "With a decision expected this week on possible indictments in the C.I.A. leak case, allies of the White House suggested Sunday that they intended to pursue a strategy of attacking any criminal charges as a disagreement over legal technicalities or the product of an overzealous prosecutor."

Those White House allies "have quietly been circulating talking points in recent days among Republicans sympathetic to the administration, seeking to help them make the case that bringing charges like perjury mean the prosecutor does not have a strong case, one Republican with close ties to the White House said Sunday. Other people sympathetic to Mr. Rove and Mr. Libby have said that indicting them would amount to criminalizing politics and that Mr. Fitzgerald did not understand how Washington works.

"Some Republicans have also been reprising a theme that was often sounded by Democrats during the investigations into President Bill Clinton, that special prosecutors and independent counsels lack accountability and too often pursue cases until they find someone to charge."

The "technicality" talking point was first uttered in public yesterday by Republican Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison of Texas, appearing on NBC's "Meet the Press" with Tim Russert .

"SEN. HUTCHISON: I certainly hope that if there is going to be an indictment . . . that it is an indictment on a crime and not some perjury technicality where they couldn't indict on the crime and so they go to something just to show that their two years of investigation was not a waste of time and taxpayer dollars. So they go to something that trips someone up because they said something in the first grand jury and then maybe they found new information or they forgot something and they tried to correct that in a second grand jury. . . .

"MR. RUSSERT: But the fact is perjury or obstruction of justice is a very serious crime and Republicans certainly thought so when charges were placed against Bill Clinton before the United States Senate. Senator Hutchison.

"SEN. HUTCHISON: Well, there were charges against Bill Clinton besides perjury and obstruction of justice. And I'm not saying that those are not crimes. . . . I think that it is important, of course, that we have a perjury and an obstruction of justice crime, but I also think we are seeing grand juries and U.S. attorneys and district attorneys that go for technicalities, sort of a gotcha mentality in this country."

For the record, there were two articles of impeachment against Clinton: One for perjury, one for obstruction of justice. No other charges. Hutchison, like most Senate Republicans voted "guilty" on both of them. And in a statement, she explained her vote this way: "If only the President had followed the simple, high moral principle handed to us by our Nation's first leader as a child and had said early in this episode 'I cannot tell a lie,' we would not be here today."

It's About the War

Richard W. Stevenson and Douglas Jehl write in the New York Times: "The legal and political stakes are of the highest order, but the investigation into the disclosure of a covert C.I.A. officer's identity is also just one skirmish in the continuing battle over the Bush administration's justification for the war in Iraq.

"That fight has preoccupied the White House for more than three years, repeatedly threatening President Bush's credibility and political standing, and has now once again put the spotlight on Vice President Dick Cheney, who assumed a critical role in assembling and analyzing the evidence about Iraq's weapons programs."

The Fitzgerald Profiles

Peter Slevin and Carol D. Leonnig write in The Washington Post that "in a case with huge political stakes for the White House, a portrait is emerging of a special counsel with no discernible political bent who prepared the ground with painstaking sleuthing and cold-eyed lawyering.

"So far, Fitzgerald has given neither Republicans nor Democrats grounds to question his motives as he excavated the machinations of a White House that prided itself on its discipline and its ability to push its pro-war message. He did not blink, lawyers and witnesses say, and he did not leak."

There are two points worthy of special attention.

Slevin and Leonnig write: "A critical early success for Fitzgerald was winning the cooperation of Robert D. Novak, the Chicago Sun-Times columnist who named Plame in a July 2003 story and attributed key information to 'two senior administration officials.' Legal sources said Novak avoided a fight and quietly helped the special counsel's inquiry, although neither the columnist nor his attorney have said so publicly."

And they note: "In its first 15 months, the investigation cost $723,000, according to the Government Accountability Office."

Think about that number for a minute. It's astonishingly low by any standard.

Consider that over about the same period of time that Fitzgerald spent $723,000, independent counsel David M. Barrett spent more than $3 million.

Who the heck is Barrett? He was appointed more than ten years ago to investigate then-Housing Secretary Henry G. Cisneros. It's not clear what he's been doing lately, other than tidying up. He's spent more than $21 million in all.

And as George Lardner Jr. wrote in The Washington Post on March 31, 2001, by that point independent counsel investigations of Clinton had cost almost $60 million -- about $52 million by Kenneth W. Starr alone.

Here are the last three GAO reports on independent counsel spending. This one covers the six months ending on March 31, 2005; this one covers the six months ending Sept. 30, 2004; this one covers the six months ending March 31, 2004.

Whatever else Fitzgerald may or may not be, he's definitely a bargain.

Scott Shane and David Johnston profile Fitzgerald in the New York Times. Edward Epstein does the same in the San Francisco Chronicle.

The Libby Profiles

Mark Leibovich writes in The Washington Post: "Among vice-presidential aides throughout history, Libby is distinctive for the power and authority he wields, a product largely of Cheney's outsize role in the Bush administration."

Richard W. Stevenson profiles Libby in the New York Times; John Dickerson does it in Slate; Julie Hirschfeld Davis does it in the Baltimore Sun.

The Week Ahead

Adam Entous writes for Reuters: "Federal prosecutor Patrick Fitzgerald appears to be laying the groundwork for indictments this week over the outing of a covert CIA operative, including possible charges of perjury and obstruction of justice, lawyers and other sources involved in case said on Sunday. . . .

"Fitzgerald is expected to give final notice to officials facing charges as early as Monday and may convene the grand jury on Tuesday, a day earlier than usual, to deliver a summary of the case and ask for approval of the possible indictments, legal sources said. The grand jury is to expire on Friday unless Fitzgerald extends it."

Brownstein on the Press

Los Angeles Times reporter Ronald Brownstein was a guest on Howard Kurtz's CNN show on Sunday:

"BROWNSTEIN: Everybody has got to take a deep breath. I mean, look, the press does a lot of things well. I'm very proud of the way we covered Harriet Miers. There is a lot of other things we've done well, but this is not -- this is not the best moment.

"When you get one of these investigations, and we are coming down to the wire, there is just enormous pressure on every news institution to have a new story every day. And inevitably, you're sort of, you know, you are sort of casting at shadows.

"Some of these stories may turn out to be extremely prescient, and very revealing, and others may not. I mean, we're talking to lawyers on the periphery of the case, we're trying to sort of peer through the keyhole. And you just wish that everybody could sort of take that deep breath and say, all right, we're going to know pretty soon one way or the other. Let's let the report come out and analyze it. But that isn't the way it works."

About That Web Site

My Friday column caused a bit of a ruckus, with my scoop that Fitzgerald had launched a new Web site -- and my observation that one of the documents on it showed that he had received explicit authority from the Justice Department to expand his inquiry to include criminal attempts to interfere with his probe.

Friday was a pretty slow news day and my exclusive -- uncredited, alas -- made headlines in newspapers all over the country and was great fodder for the television talking heads.

I was the first to suggest that this did not look like the work of an office about to close shop, and I still believe that. But some of the speculation over the Web site's significance was a bit over the top. For instance, I can assure you that the prosecutors were not intentionally sending a sign to anyone.

When I spoke to him Friday morning, Fitzgerald spokesman Randall Samborn was surprised and clearly not happy that I had discovered the Web site, which he acknowledged had actually first gone up on Wednesday night. It was my distinct sense that Fitzgerald would have been much happier if no one had noticed it until they were ready to post something new.

The Secret About Secrets

David E. Sanger writes in the New York Times: "There are still lots of real secrets in Washington. But the most secretive White House in modern history has learned the hard way -- even while its spokesman reflexively utter the caution, 'We don't talk about intelligence,' or, 'Sorry, that's classified' -- that it must reveal a pretty steady stream of secrets all the time. . . .

"In five years of covering national security issues at the Bush White House, I've seen classified information leaked or suddenly declared 'declassified' for many reasons, most often to explain a new policy and sometimes to back up a presidential statement."

For instance, he writes: "There are moments when what is classified in the morning becomes public record in the afternoon. Two weeks ago, President Bush gave a speech defending his record fighting terrorism, saying the United States and its allies had stopped 10 terror plots, including three in the United States. He described none of them, and his spokesman, Scott McClellan, declined to provide details.

"But by late afternoon -- after heated conversations between reporters and the White House, and then the White House and intelligence agencies -- the White House e-mailed reporters a list of plots. It was a mix of cases that were well known and a few never before made public. A senior official who talked about them that night joked that a few hours earlier he might have been jailed for discussing the subject.

" 'Now we've posted it on the White House Web site,' he said."

About Those Foiled Plots

Sara Kehaulani Goo writes in The Washington Post: "A White House list of 10 terrorist plots disrupted by the United States has confused counterterrorism experts and officials, who say they cannot distinguish between the importance of some incidents on the list and others that were left off.

"Intelligence officials who spoke on the condition of anonymity said the White House overstated the gravity of the plots by saying that they had been foiled, when most were far from ready to be executed. . . .

"The president made it 'sound like well-hatched plans,' said a former CIA official involved in counterterrorism during that period. 'I don't think they fall into that category.' "

Scowcroft Joins the Critics

In a New Yorker profile out today, Brent Scowcroft, who was the national security adviser to Bush's father, goes public with his critique of the neoconservatives who took the country to war.

Blogger Steve Clemmons has excerpts.

Here's one passage from the New Yorker story: "Scowcroft suggested that the White House was taking the wrong advice, and listening to a severely limited circle. He singled out the Princeton Middle East scholar Bernard Lewis, who was consulted by Vice-President Cheney and others after the terror attacks of September 11, 2001. Lewis, Scowcroft said, fed a feeling in the White House that the United States must assert itself. 'It's that idea that we've got to hit somebody hard,' Scowcroft said. 'And Bernard Lewis says, "I believe that one of the things you've got to do to Arabs is hit them between the eyes with a big stick. They respect power."' Cheney, in particular, Scowcroft thinks, accepted Lewis's view of Middle East politics. 'The real anomaly in the Administration is Cheney,' Scowcroft said. 'I consider Cheney a good friend -- I've known him for thirty years. But Dick Cheney I don't know anymore.' "

Grilling the Onion

Katharine Q. Seelye writes in the New York Times: "You might have thought that the White House had enough on its plate late last month, what with its search for a new Supreme Court nominee, the continuing war in Iraq and the C.I.A. leak investigation. But it found time to add another item to its agenda -- stopping The Onion, the satirical newspaper, from using the presidential seal.

"The newspaper regularly produces a parody of President Bush's weekly radio address on its Web site ( www.theonion.com/content/node/40121 ), where it has a picture of President Bush and the official insignia."

A complete archive of the Onion's spoof of presidential weekly radio addresses can be found at weeklyradioaddress.com .

© 2005 Washingtonpost.Newsweek Interactive