Moment of Weakness

By Dan Froomkin
Special to washingtonpost.com
Friday, October 28, 2005; 12:03 PM

The worst week of George W. Bush's presidency ends with a bang today, as special prosecutor Patrick J. Fitzgerald announces the results of his nearly two-year investigation into the leak of a CIA agent's identity.

As of this writing, signs are that Fitzgerald will indict I. Lewis "Scooter" Libby, the vice president's chief of staff, but let Bush's chief political adviser, Karl Rove, off the hook -- at least temporarily.

Jim VandeHei and Carol D. Leonnig are reporting for The Washington Post this morning that "Rove provided new information to Fitzgerald during 11th hour negotiations that 'gave Fitzgerald pause' about charging Bush's senior strategist, said a source close to Rove. 'The prosecutor has to resolve those issues before he decides what to do.' "

David Johnston and Richard W. Stevenson wrote in the New York Times last night that Rove "will remain under investigation, people briefed officially about the case said. As a result, they said, the special counsel in the case, Patrick J. Fitzgerald, was likely to extend the term of the federal grand jury beyond its scheduled expiration on Friday."

One thing I can add to the debate over what Fitzgerald's options are when it comes to continuing his scrutiny of Rove: I have it on impeccable authority that there is absolutely no way that Fitzgerald could extend the term of this particular grand jury.

Fitzgerald has been on the case for 22 months, but he is using a regular federal grand jury that was impaneled two months earlier -- in late October 2003. Grand juries typically are impaneled for 18 months. The rules are clear: They can be extended in extraordinary circumstances for six more months, as this one has been. But beyond that there are absolutely no exceptions.

So if Fitzgerald wants to pursue this investigation, he'll have to use another grand jury. That's quite doable -- he would just have FBI agents read out loud, to the new grand jury, the relevant testimony from the old grand jury, and then take it from there.

But the group of jurors who actually heard Rove's testimony with their own ears will officially be disbanded -- and sworn to secrecy -- as of today.

A Vulnerable Presidency

Badly wounded and weakened, Bush heads for the hills tonight -- to spend the weekend at Camp David. His traditional opponents -- those on his left -- now see him as vulnerable, an emperor with no clothes. Longtime allies on the right suddenly feel like they can push him around.

With fire coming from both sides, the end result could be a loss of his ability to govern.

Todd S. Purdum writes in the New York Times: "George W. Bush has been in the White House for 248 weeks, through a terrorist attack, two wars and a bruising re-election. But it seems safe to say that he has never had a worse political week than this one - and it is not over yet. . . .

"The biggest question for Mr. Bush now is what he can make of the 39 months remaining in his presidency. For this horrible week has been months - even years - in the making. The 2,000th American fatality in Iraq was just the latest daunting milestone in a war that will soon be three years old. The C.I.A. leak investigation that threatens to indict a top White House aide or two on Friday grew out of the fierce debates over the flawed intelligence that led to that war.

"And Harriet E. Miers's withdrawal of her nomination to the Supreme Court is the bitter fruit of Mr. Bush's own frailty in the wake of all those storms - and Hurricane Katrina - and of his miscalculations about how her appointment would be received.

"His effort to avoid a fight by choosing a nominee with a scant public record (whose conservative fidelity only he could vouch for) instead prompted a ferocious backlash from the conservative activists he has courted for years. . . .

"Some scholars and Republican elders say it is now time for Mr. Bush to do what Ronald Reagan did when the Iran-contra scandal threatened to derail his second term: shake up the White House staff, retool his domestic and foreign policy agenda and move on. But most say they see few signs that Mr. Bush intends to do so."

Ronald Brownstein writes in the Los Angeles Times: "George W. Bush's first term was a tutorial on how a determined and aggressive president can multiply his strength and drive sweeping change from a narrow electoral base.

"His second term increasingly looks like the opposite: a bitter lesson in how swiftly a president's influence can erode and how quickly presidential weakness can breed division in his party. . . .

"Republican defection is especially difficult for Bush because, after five years of bruising partisan combat, he attracts few votes from Democratic lawmakers for his priorities. That means resistance from relatively few Republican legislators can deny him majorities."

Mark Silva writes in the Chicago Tribune: "President Bush has reached a deep valley of his presidency, a place where even some of the ideological voices of his own party have abandoned him and his harshest critics are openly declaring a failed administration.

"He has spent much of his tenure waging war with Democrats, relying on Republican-only majorities for victory. Now, with the withdrawal of the nomination of his longtime lawyer and ally, Harriet Miers, to the Supreme Court, Bush has lost a battle from within.

"For a president known for his strength and unshaken resolve, the loss marks an uncharacteristic moment of weakness and surrender."

Paul West writes in the Baltimore Sun: "It was hard to ignore the comparison as President Bush toured hurricane-devastated South Florida yesterday, where millions were still without power.

"Bush's administration has become, in some ways, its own crisis zone, with the president's power to influence events in Washington increasingly in doubt. His failed Supreme Court nomination of Harriet E. Miers, a close and devoted friend from Dallas, was only the latest blow."

Thomas M. DeFrank writes in the New York Daily News: "The Bush presidency already resembled Fiasco Central well before Harriet Miers' bungled nomination reached its point of incineration. . . .

"'He's not a lame duck,' one of his closest political counselors said yesterday. 'He's a clumsy duck. This can still be fixed.'

"Yet some of Bush's most trusted advisers believe his political viability is dangerously near a tipping point.

" 'He is right back to where he was on Sept. 10, 2001,' a former White House official said in amazement at Bush's decline."

The Miers Withdrawal: What Now?

The big question going forward is what lesson the White House will draw from the collapse of the Harriet Miers Supreme Court nomination.

Dan Balz and Juliet Eilperin write in The Washington Post: "President Bush's nomination of Harriet Miers on Oct. 3 was made from a position of weakness by a White House beset by political problems and eager to avoid a fight over the Supreme Court. Twenty-four excruciating days later, the supposed safe choice crashed, exposing the president as even weaker than before.

"Bush now has an opportunity to recover from one of the biggest political miscalculations of his term, the failure to anticipate the backlash Miers would cause with his own conservative base. But in repairing that breach, he risks a new confrontation with Democrats and further estrangement from the political center -- precisely the situation he hoped to avoid when he tapped his loyal and unassuming personal lawyer in the first place."

John Harwood, John D. McKinnon, Jeanne Cummings and Jess Bravin write in the Wall Street Journal (subscription required): "Mr. Bush now has several unattractive options from which to choose, a decision that could have profound implications for how his second term unfolds.

"Presidential allies expect him to try calming a rebellious Republican right by picking an unequivocal judicial conservative. But Democrats are likely to battle any choice designed to appease the president's right flank -- renewing Senate warfare over judicial nominations from earlier this year that had appeared to subside.

"He could reach for a consensus choice in hopes of pleasing centrist Republican and Democrat senators, thus avoiding a confirmation fight. But that might open him to conservative attacks that he has abdicated his responsibilities on a crucial matter, deepening the perception of presidential weakness.

"Mr. Bush's predicament is heightened by the slip in his approval ratings to around 40%. Problems include Iraq, energy prices, Social Security, and the Central Intelligence Agency leak case that could ensnare senior White House staffers in legal charges as early as today. Now, observes University of Akron scholar John Green: 'He's essentially lost his margin for error.' "

Steven Thomma writes for Knight Ridder Newspapers: "Miers' rejection by conservatives taught Bush that he can't take them for granted, but he can't take the Senate for granted, either. In his current weak political state, his best bet may be to try to please them both, avoid a fight and choose a nominee who's as broadly acceptable as Chief Justice John G. Roberts proved to be - if that's possible.

"Conservative activists want the president to pick someone in the mold of Antonin Scalia, an assertive ideological legal warrior. They ache for a fight with Senate Democrats over an appointment that could shift the closely divided Supreme Court decisively to the right.

"Such a finger-in-the-Democrats'-eye nomination would help Bush get conservatives back in line, but might erode his support in the Senate. Many senators of both parties are nervous as they head into a congressional election year in 2006. The public mood is sour, and voters generally are turning thumbs down on the president and Congress. The last thing many senators want is a noisy, divisive fight over a court nominee who voters may be persuaded is extreme."

Michael A. Fletcher and Charles Babington write in The Washington Post: "Some conservative activists predict Bush will reconsider some previously thought to be in the running, including federal appellate judges Samuel A. Alito Jr., J. Michael Luttig, Karen J. Williams, Michael W. McConnell and Priscilla R. Owen. Another federal judge mentioned is Diane S. Sykes.

"Others speculated that Bush might nominate a senator with judicial experience, such as John Cornyn (R-Tex.), to avoid a contentious battle because senators would be unlikely to reject one of their own."

Jonathan Weisman writes in The Washington Post that the intra-Republican rift exposed by the Miers nomination could bedevil the rest of Bush's term.

"Those who opposed Miers as insufficiently qualified and unreliably conservative said yesterday they would use their new zeal and organization to drive Bush not only to pick an outwardly conservative nominee but also to press a more conservative agenda through his last three years in office. Some accused those who stuck with Miers as showing themselves more loyal to the White House than their stated conservative principles.

"Those who stuck with Miers warned that the White House will long remember the activists who turned on the president's nominee and are not likely to be receptive to their demands."

According to an overnight Gallup Poll, the American public is more pleased than disappointed with Harriet Miers' withdrawal. And of those who are pleased, their biggest beefs were that Miers was unqualified (49 percent) and too close to Bush personally (35 percent); only 4 percent said she wasn't conservative enough.

Peter Baker and Amy Goldstein write in The Washington Post, looking back at what went wrong: " 'This thing never got off the launching pad very well,' said a senior administration official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because public airing of self-criticism is not encouraged in the White House.

" 'What we ran up against may be a different bar and maybe discomfort with the unfamiliar,' another official said. 'Did we learn anything? I don't know.' "

Quick Takes

* Murray Waas writes in the National Journal: "Vice President Cheney and his chief of staff, I. Lewis (Scooter) Libby, overruling advice from some White House political staffers and lawyers, decided to withhold crucial documents from the Senate Intelligence Committee in 2004 when the panel was investigating the use of pre-war intelligence that erroneously concluded Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction, according to Bush administration and congressional sources."

* Blogger Steve Clemons retracts his report yesterday that Fitzgerald had just signed a new lease for office space.

* Reuters reports: "A prominent Republican fund-raiser for President George W. Bush in Ohio has been charged with illegally funneling money to Bush's re-election campaign, a federal prosecutor said on Thursday."

* Douglas Jehl writes in the New York Times: "A two-year inquiry by the Federal Bureau of Investigation has yet to uncover the origin of forged documents that formed a basis for sending an envoy on a fact-finding trip to Niger, a mission that eventually exploded into the C.I.A. leak inquiry, law enforcement and intelligence officials say."

* Jack Shafer writes in Slate that columnist Bob Novak, when he finally decides to come forth with his version of events, "won't have an easy time telling his story."

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