By Dan Froomkin
Special to washingtonpost.com
Thursday, December 15, 2005; 1:51 PM
In a Fox News interview aired last night, President Bush declared that he believes indicted former House majority leader Tom DeLay is innocent of the money-laundering charges brought against him in Texas.
It's unusual for a president in any circumstance to make such a definitive pronouncement about an ongoing criminal case.
But it seemed particularly at odds given Bush's repeated insistence that his obligation not to prejudice a criminal investigation or trial resoundingly trumps the public's right to hear what he thinks or knows about the role of senior White House officials in the outing of a CIA operative's identity.
Bush last year vowed to fire anyone involved in that leak, but went mum once a criminal investigation was launched. Even after his top aide was implicated and Vice President Cheney's top aide was indicted -- raising widespread concern about the ethics and honesty of his closest advisers -- Bush refused to answer even basic questions, saying it would be inappropriate to comment.
Senior adviser Karl Rove is of course still working at the White House; Scooter Libby resigned after being indicted and received a warm sendoff from both Cheney and Bush.
Jim VandeHei writes in The Washington Post: "President Bush said yesterday he is confident that former House majority leader Tom DeLay (R-Tex.) is innocent of money-laundering charges, as he offered strong support for several top Republicans who have been battered by investigations or by rumors of fading clout inside the White House.
"In an interview with Fox News, Bush said he hopes DeLay will be cleared of charges that he illegally steered corporate money into campaigns for the Texas legislature and will reclaim his powerful leadership position in Congress. . . .
"Bush has refused to speak about the CIA leak investigation or the impending trial of I. Lewis 'Scooter' Libby, the former vice presidential chief of staff who was indicted in the case. But the president said he believes that DeLay is not guilty -- weeks before his trial is expected to begin."
VandeHei writes that Bush also was asked about the charges of pervasive unethical behavior within the Republican Party, including the unfolding money-for-favors scandal centered on former GOP lobbyist Jack Abramoff.
" '[T]he Abramoff -- I'm not, frankly, all that familiar with a lot that's going on over at Capitol Hill, but it seems like to me that he was an equal money dispenser, that he was giving money to people in both political parties.' "
Not so, as VandeHei points out: "According to campaign finance reports, Abramoff and his clients contributed money to Democrats but substantially more to Republicans."
Richard W. Stevenson writes in the New York Times: "In an interview with Fox News, Mr. Bush broke with his usual practice of avoiding direct comment on pending criminal investigations to express his faith in Mr. DeLay, who was forced by party rules to step aside as majority leader after being indicted in September on charges of funneling corporate campaign contributions to Republican candidates for the Texas Legislature. . . .
"The White House routinely declines to comment on criminal investigations or on the guilt or innocence of people who have been charged with wrongdoing. But in the interview on Wednesday, Mr. Bush waded into perhaps the most politically charged of a series of cases in which prominent Republicans have come under scrutiny."Endorsements
Taken at face value, Bush's comments yesterday suggest that all the fevered speculation in the media that the president's relations with Cheney and Rove have cooled, or that Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld is on his way out the door, are simply dead wrong.
Adam Entous writes for Reuters: "President George W. Bush offered strong endorsements on Wednesday to two architects of the Iraq war, Donald Rumsfeld and Dick Cheney, and said he was as close as ever to top political adviser Karl Rove despite his role in the CIA leak case.
"Rebuffing Democratic calls for a shake-up over Iraq war strategy and speculation about rifts within the White House, Bush said he had no intention of removing Rumsfeld as defense secretary, crediting him with doing a 'heck of a job.' Rumsfeld and the vice president, Cheney, have been frequently accused by critics of pushing the war on false pretenses.
Of course, the last person who Bush so publicly said was doing a "heck of a job" was then-FEMA director Michael Brown, who resigned in disgrace just days later.
But here's Bush on Cheney:
"BUSH: You know, the vice president goes through I guess what all people in Washington go through at some time or another . . . nasty speculation about whether he's running the government or not running the government, whether I like him or don't like him.
"The truth of the matter is, our relationship hasn't changed hardly at all. He's a very close advisor. I view him as a good friend. I had lunch with him today. We discussed a wide variety of topics.
"And the good thing about Dick Cheney is when he discusses a topic with me and he gives me his advice, I never read about it in the newspaper the next day. And that's why our relationship is so close and his advice is so valued."
As for Rove: "[W]e're still as close as we've ever been. We've been through a lot. When I look back at the presidency and my time in politics, uh, no question Karl had a lot to do with me getting here. And I value his friendship. We're very close."The Four Speeches
Looking for a powerful, two-fisted analysis of Bush's Iraq speeches? Go read Peter Baker 's news analysis in The Washington Post today.
"As President Bush wrapped up a series of speeches on the war yesterday, he once again gave a clear answer to when U.S. troops would come home from Iraq: 'We will not leave until victory has been achieved.'
"And he also gave this clear answer to when U.S. troops would come home from Iraq: 'As Iraqis stand up, we will stand down.'
"What he did not do was reconcile those two ideas. Will U.S. soldiers withdraw from Iraq only after the insurgency has been vanquished? Or will they withdraw when Iraqi security forces become adequately trained to take over the battle themselves? Or somewhere in between?
"For Bush, the four speeches delivered over the past two weeks represented a determined effort to reshape the angry debate at home over the war, presenting a more sober picture of the situation while highlighting the progress he sees exemplified in today's election of a new, full-fledged Iraqi parliament. At the same time, according to analysts, he carefully calibrated his rhetoric to give him maximum flexibility in determining ultimately just what will constitute victory."
There's much more about reconciling "Bush's desire to project Churchillian resolve" with his desire "to signal that the United States will not remain forever enmeshed in a bloody overseas conflict fueled by sectarian enmity."
And Baker notes: "Bush advisers have learned to stay away from forecasting imminent victory."
Here's the text of Bush's speech yesterday.
Ron Hutcheson writes for Knight Ridder Newspapers: "In the latest example of a broader White House campaign to rescue his presidency, George W. Bush wrapped up a series of speeches about Iraq on Wednesday by defending the 2003 invasion despite erroneous prewar intelligence about weapons of mass destruction.
" 'It's true that much of the intelligence turned out to be wrong,' Bush admitted - omitting that he and top aides had ignored warnings from midlevel intelligence agents that some of the evidence was suspect - then quickly added that he has no regrets about his decision to oust Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein. 'We are in Iraq today because our goal has always been more than the removal of a brutal dictator. It is to leave a free and democratic Iraq in its place.' "
David E. Sanger writes in the New York Times: "It took a thousand days after he ordered the invasion of Iraq for President Bush to describe in considerable detail his strategy for transforming the country and the region, and to lay out the benchmarks that he said Wednesday would lead to 'complete victory.'
"Yet in four recent speeches and an accompanying strategy document he has made his case, some of his aides concede, just as his ability to control events in Iraq may be about to erode. . . .
"Participants in some of the briefings he has received in the Situation Room in recent weeks" describe the "far more somber tone of the briefings. Military commanders have described possible situations that range from the best case - drawing American troops down to about 100,000 before the American elections in November - to keeping them at far higher numbers if the new Parliament turns to chaos, civil war threatens, or political leaders are assassinated.
" 'We've either built ourselves an exit ramp,' one senior official involved in the discussions said this week, 'or we've built ourselves a box.' "Not Much New Yesterday
Dana Milbank writes in his Washington Post news column: "For the 22nd time in a speech as president, Bush said we would not 'cut and run' in Iraq. For the 28th time, he said Iraq was 'the central front' in the war on terrorism. And, for the 100th time, Bush promised that 'we will prevail' against the terrorists. . . .
"His four Iraq speeches, though different in emphasis, were full of numbing repetition. Washingtonpost.com's Adrian Holovaty did a computer analysis of the four Iraq speeches and found dozens of phrases repeated in all four. Bush invoked 'democracy' 83 times, 'freedom' 68 times and 'security' 75 times. The president invoked 'victory' 10 times in the 30-minute address -- more than the six victory mentions on Monday but fewer than the 11 on Dec. 7 and the 15 on Nov. 30. . . .
"The lack of new material in Bush's speech complicated the second act in yesterday's double feature. Jack Murtha (Pa.), the Democratic congressman who has been rebutting each of the four Iraq speeches, had little to work with. 'He keeps saying the same thing over and over,' Murtha protested during his regular televised rebuttal."Briefing Follies
It's standard operating procedure for Bush to give essentially the same speech over and over again. Typically, it's press secretary Scott McClellan's job to persuade the press corps that there was indeed something new. Not yesterday .
" Q Scott, the President, for the first time in my recollection, took responsibility for taking the nation to war on faulty intelligence. Can you expand on that a little bit?
" MR. McCLELLAN: Well, I think he was very clear in what he said. I think he made clear, and he's made it clear before, I believe, that the decision he made to go in and remove Saddam Hussein was his decision and it was the right decision. We're better off with Saddam Hussein out of power.
" Q But he also said it was his responsibility for going to war on --
" MR. McCLELLAN: No, I don't think that's new. I think he's talked about that before."
McClellan was also hard-pressed to back up one of Bush's straw-man arguments:
" Q Also he said today, and he's said this before, that some people have suggested that if we leave the terrorists alone, terrorists will leave the United States alone. Maybe I've missed it, but whoever suggested that?
" MR. McCLELLAN: Well, I think there are people that have suggested that the terrorists would just be idle if we weren't engaging them in Iraq, and that being in Iraq has led to their attacks. Well, the attacks were taking place for a long time prior to our decision going into Iraq.
" Q Have they really said that if we weren't there, the terrorists would be idle?
" MR. McCLELLAN: Oh, people have talked about this issue. And I think what the President said in his remarks was very clear."Taking Responsibility For What?
So did Bush stake out a new position on his responsibility for going to war on false intelligence? Maybe, maybe not.
Jennifer Loven writes for the Associated Press: "Bush has repeatedly noted that the decision to go to war was his responsibility. And he has acknowledged for more than a year that most of the intelligence behind the claims of Saddam's weapons programs turned out to be faulty. But he has never linked the two so clearly and so personally."
Kenneth R. Bazinet writes in the New York Daily News: "President Bush blamed himself yesterday for going to war based on lousy intelligence, another in a string of mea culpas that may be helping sway public opinion his way."
Ken Herman writes for Cox News Service: "President Bush said Wednesday the invasion of Iraq was the right thing to do even if was for a reason that turned out to be wrong. . . .
"It was not the first time Bush acknowledged the faulty intelligence.
"But it was unusual for him to bring it up on his own."
Robert Schlesinger writes on the Huffington Post blog: "Don't be fooled by the press reports: President Bush did not admit any personal mistakes Wednesday.
"What he did was reaffirm that he was right -- regardless of other people's mistakes."One Marine's Story
Bush yesterday spoke of a young Marine lieutenant who was killed in Iraq last month, calling him a symbol of "the greatest force for freedom in human history."
Johanna Neuman writes in the Los Angeles Times: "Ryan McGlothlin was an interesting choice for the president's speechwriting team. When White House speechwriters contacted his parents Monday to ask for permission to mention him, they were told that McGlothlin had not voted for Bush in 2000 or 2004.
"But, Donald and Ruth McGlothlin said, they told the White House that Bush could use their son's story as long as it was not reduced to a sound bite or taken out of context. And they vetted the words the president delivered.
"' My son told us, to our faces, 'I won't vote for Mr. Bush, but I'll take a bullet for him,' " Donald McGlothlin said in an interview Wednesday."
The McGlothlins also spoke with Wolf Blitzer on CNN yesterday:
"D. MCGLOTHLIN: Well, we first had misgivings. We did not want our son's story to be used lightly or in a way that would be unseemly. But we discussed, in light of some recent correspondence that Ruth had received from our son, we actually received it after his death, we felt that it was important and that Ryan would want the American public to know what he told us in the letter.
"R. MCGLOTHLIN: Actually, I don't feel Ryan felt that when we first went to war that was the right place or the right time. And that's why we wanted to make sure that the White House understood that. He felt if we were going to go to war we should have been in Afghanistan, and I think he felt war should have been the last resort or last possible resort. And I'm not sure he felt that it was.
"What he did feel that once we went there, and we tore down the government they did know, and disrupted their country, we had an obligation to fix what we had destroyed. And he very strongly believed in that."Elder Anger
John Harwood writes in the Wall Street Journal: "While President Bush has high hopes for today's elections in Iraq, his Republican Party faces a different challenge at home: quelling the political insurgency among elderly American voters. . . .
"In a period of broad-ranging public discontent, that among senior citizens stands out as most worrisome for Republicans aiming to keep control of the House and Senate in the fall. . . .
"[O]lder voters, having given Mr. Bush slightly greater support than younger voters in his narrow 2004 re-election victory, have now become the most critical of his job performance. In the Journal/NBC poll, for instance, Americans under 65 disapprove of Mr. Bush's job performance by a margin of 16 percentage points, while those 65 and above disapprove by a margin of 20 percentage points."Poll Watch
The new Wall Street Journal/NBC News poll finds Bush's overall approval rating at 39 percent, down from 50 percent earlier this year but up from his 38 percent approval in November.
A new Zogby poll finds his approval rating at 38 percent, down 3 percent from last month.
The latest Pew poll find his approval up 2 percent from last month, but only to 38 percent.
And in a poll question commissioned by an anti-Bush coalition but asked by Rasmussen Reports , 32 percent of Americans say they want Bush impeached and removed from office, compared to 35 percent for Cheney.
"The impeachment of President Bush is favored by a plurality (49%) of Democrats. However, it is opposed by 84% of Republicans and 55% of those not affiliated with either major political party."
Democrats.com reports that "prior to the impeachment of President Clinton in August and September 1998, there were 10 major polls conducted. Support for impeaching Clinton and removing him from office averaged only 26%."Correction
I asserted in yesterday's column that none of the major newspaper had written about Bush's no-show at his own White House Conference on Aging.
But Janet Kornblum points out that she had a story about the conference in USA Today on Monday, where she noted that Bush was not planning to attend.FOIA Watch
Mark Sherman writes for the Associated Press: "President Bush on Wednesday directed federal agencies to be more efficient in dealing with requests for government information, but he left in place a four-year-old policy that restricts access under the Freedom of Information Act. . . .
"The Associated Press is among the media organizations that have pressed for more government openness. Dave Tomlin, the AP's assistant general counsel, said Bush's announcement does not go far enough."
Rebecca Carr writes for Cox News Service: "The executive order incorporates key provisions of legislation introduced this year by Sens. John Cornyn, R-Texas, and Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., and in the House by Rep. Lamar Smith, R-San Antonio.
"Cornyn and Smith stood by the president as he signed the order and warmly endorsed it. . . .
"Leahy did not attend because the White House did not tell him before the event what the executive order contained.
" 'The executive order is a constructive step, but it is not the comprehensive reforms we need,' Leahy said. 'For example, it does not impose penalties for agencies that miss deadlines. We can do better.' "Plame Watch
Rob Christensen broke the story in the Raleigh News and Observer yesterday, but it gets broadcast wide today:
As Carol D. Leonnig writes in The Washington Post: "Syndicated columnist Robert D. Novak, who has repeatedly declined to discuss his role in disclosing the identity of CIA operative Valerie Plame, said in a speech this week that he is certain President Bush knows who his mystery administration source is. . . .
" 'So I say, don't bug me. Don't bug Bob Woodward. Bug the president as to whether he should reveal who the source is,' Novak said."
"Sen. Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.) sent a letter to Bush yesterday urging him to name the source and make public any disciplinary action taken, 'in keeping with your stated desire to root out leaks.' "Bush's Legacy
From the Fox interview:
"HUME: Let me get your thoughts, Mr. President, on -- on how you think or hope you'll be remembered.
"BUSH: You mean, just kind of a blanket statement?
"BUSH: I hope that first, as a person, I'll be remembered as a fellow who had his priorities straight: his faith, his family and his friends are a central part of his life.
"Secondly, I hope to be remembered, from a personal perspective, as a fellow who had lived life to the fullest and gave it his all. And thirdly, I'd like to be remembered as the president who used American influence for the good of the world: bastioning freedom and fighting disease and poverty, by recognizing to whom much is given, much is required and that -- that I wasn't afraid to make a decision."Eye for Detail
Brian Williams talked to TVGuide.com after his Bush interview:
"Williams: I love the details. When I was a White House intern in '79, I loved how the White House staff mirrored the boss. Everybody who worked for President Carter wore his or her watches crystal down because he did. The boss always has a quirk that the staff mirrors, whether they do it consciously or not. In the Bush White House, everybody uses a Sharpie because that's Bush's pen of choice. They are all over the place. Sharpie now makes one for them. It bears a replica of the president's signature on the barrel of the pen. That I noticed by just looking at his inbox in the Oval Office."