By Dan Froomkin
Special to washingtonpost.com
Thursday, March 29, 2007; 9:28 AM
(Note to readers: I'm taking some time off; the column will resume soon.)
It seems fitting that even as Karl Rove's politicization of the White House's policy apparatus draws greater scrutiny from Congressional investigators, Rove himself last night was prancing in front of members of the Washington press corps, who appeared to be delighted.
"I'm MC Rove," the political guru yelped as he flailed about in an improvised rap sketch at the Radio and Television Correspondents' Association dinner.
Rove is indeed the Bush era's master of ceremonies -- and its leading beat-the-rapper. He is also peculiarly able to charm journalists.
But as the Democratic Congress begins to exert its investigatory powers, Rove's profound influence -- even in areas where his hyper-partisanship is inappropriate -- is increasingly being challenged.Rove's Influence
David D. Kirkpatrick and Jim Rutenberg write in the New York Times: "Political advisers have had a hand in picking judges and prosecutors for decades, but Mr. Rove exercises unusually broad influence over political, policy and personnel decisions because of his closeness to the president, tenure in the administration and longstanding interest in turning the judiciary to the right. . . .
"In the months before the United States attorneys in New Mexico and Washington State were ousted, Mr. Rove joined a chorus of complaints from state Republicans that the federal prosecutors had failed to press charges in Democratic voter fraud cases. While planning a June 21, 2006, White House session to discuss the prosecutors, for example, a Rove deputy arranged for top Justice Department officials to meet with an important Bush supporter who was critical of New Mexico's federal prosecutor about voter fraud.
"And in Arkansas, newly released Justice Department e-mail messages show, Mr. Rove's staff repeatedly prodded the department's staff to install one of his prot?g?s as a United States attorney by ousting a previous Bush appointee who was in good standing."
Congressional Democrats say they are "focusing on Mr. Rove in part because the administration appeared to have tried to hide his fingerprints. In a February 23 letter to Senate Democratic leaders that was approved by the White House counsel's office, for example, the Justice Department said that no one in the White House had 'lobbied' for any of the eight dismissals, and specifically denied that Mr. Rove had 'any role' in the appointment of the prot?g?, J. Timothy Griffin, a former Bush campaign operative.
"But the Justice Department officials who drafted the letter had corresponded with Mr. Rove's staff just weeks earlier about how to get the nomination done. On Wednesday night, a department official apologized for inaccuracies in the letter."
Margaret Talev and Marisa Taylor write for McClatchy Newspapers about that apology: "'We sincerely regret any inaccuracy,' said the letter from acting Assistant Attorney General Richard A. Hertling to Senate Democrats. It topped a 202-page release of new documents that was turned over for a congressional inquiry into the firings of eight top federal prosecutors last year."
Among the documents, as Paul Kiel writes for TPM Muckraker, is evidence that Christopher Oprison -- a member of the White House counsel's office who had previously been a party to e-mails about Rove's interest in Griffin's appointment -- signed off on the letter that denied any such interest.
David D. Kirkpatrick writes in the New York Times: "A spokesman for the White House, Tony Fratto, said the letter was reviewed by an associate White House counsel who left it to the Justice Department to double-check its accuracy.
"'He did not double-check the Justice Department's facts,' Mr. Fratto said. 'He did caution Justice to make sure that the facts were accurate.'
"Mr. Rove had no recollection of seeing the letter, Mr. Fratto said."
But as Richard B. Schmitt and Richard Simon write in the Los Angeles Times: "Documents released Wednesday by the Justice Department raised further questions about whether Sampson and the White House tried to mislead Congress about the part Rove played in replacing the prosecutors. . . .
"'The plot continues to thicken,' [Sen. Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.), a member of the judiciary committee] said Wednesday in response to the fifth batch of e-mails the Justice Department has released this month. 'It seems the Justice Department rarely acted without the knowledge and approval of the White House. In effect, the White House was involved in denying its own involvement.'"Negotiations (Non) Watch
Laurie Kellman writes for the Associated Press: "Lawmakers prodded the White House Wednesday for a new answer on whether President Bush's political adviser, Karl Rove, will testify about the firings of federal prosecutors.
"'We have not heard from you,' Patrick Leahy of Vermont and John Conyers of Michigan, the Senate and House Judiciary committees' chairmen, wrote to President Bush's counsel, Fred Fielding.
"The White House has indicated no willingness to move beyond Bush's initial offer to let Rove, former White House Counsel Harriet Miers and their deputies to speak to committee members, but only in private, without being sworn and off the record....
"The two Democrats warned that silence from the White House would not be the end of the matter and cautioned Fielding to preserve all documents detailing the aides' roles in the firings. That includes, the chairmen said, e-mails they may have written on accounts outside the White House -- such as the Republican National Committee and other political campaigns.
"'We trust that you ... are not artificially limiting your production to the official white House e-mail and document retention system,' the chairmen wrote."
Here's the letter to Fielding.E-Mail Watch
Sidney Blumenthal writes for Salon: "When I worked in the Clinton White House, people brought in their personal computers if they were engaged in any campaign work, but all official transactions had to be done within the White House system as stipulated by the Presidential Records Act of 1978. . . . Having forsaken the use of Executive Office of the President e-mail, executive privilege has been sacrificed. Moreover, Rove's and the others' practice may not be legal."Voter Fraud (Non) Watch
Michael Waldman and Justin Levitt write in a Washington Post op-ed: "Allegations of voter fraud -- someone sneaking into the polls to cast an illicit vote -- have been pushed in recent years by partisans seeking to justify proof-of-citizenship and other restrictive ID requirements as a condition of voting. Scare stories abound on the Internet and on editorial pages, and they quickly become accepted wisdom.
"But the notion of widespread voter fraud, as these prosecutors found out, is itself a fraud. Firing a prosecutor for failing to find wide voter fraud is like firing a park ranger for failing to find Sasquatch. . . .
"Those investigating the U.S. attorney firings should ask what orders went out to other prosecutors in the run-up to the 2006 election. Prosecutors are not hired-gun lawyers on a party payroll. They have a special duty to exercise their power responsibly, particularly in the context of a heated election. Pressure on prosecutors to join a witch hunt for individual voter fraud is a scandal, not just for the Justice Department but for voters seeking to exercise their most basic right."Sampson Watch
Kyle Sampson, the former chief of staff to Attorney General Alberto Gonzales and the triggerman in the controversial firings, is testifying before the Senate Judiciary Committee this morning, even as I finish up this column.
Here is the text of his prepared opening statement, leaked to reporters last night.
Laurie Kellman writes for the Associated Press today: "Eight federal prosecutors were fired last year because they did not sufficiently support President Bush's priorities, Attorney General Alberto Gonzales' former chief of staff said Thursday, a standard that Democrats called 'highly improper.'
"'The distinction between political and performance-related reasons for removing a United States attorney is, in my view, largely artificial,' Kyle Sampson told the Senate Judiciary Committee. 'A U.S. attorney who is unsuccessful from a political perspective . . . is unsuccessful.'
"Democrats on the panel immediately rejected the concept of mixing politics with federal law enforcement. They accusing the Bush administration of cronyism and trying to circumvent the Senate confirmation process by installing favored GOP allies in plum jobs as U.S. attorneys."
Liberal blogger Josh Marshall writes with an important reminder: "The charge against Sampson and crew is not that they fired them for 'political' reasons. The charge is that they fired these prosecutors for not using their law enforcement powers to help the Republican party."
And David D. Kirkpatrick writes in the New York Times: "It is unclear how much [Sampson] knows about all the motives for the removals, because a Justice Department official like him would typically have little access to internal White House deliberations."
Joseph D. Rich writes in a Los Angeles Times op-ed: "The scandal unfolding around the firing of eight U.S. attorneys compels the conclusion that the Bush administration has rewarded loyalty over all else. A destructive pattern of partisan political actions at the Justice Department started long before this incident, however, as those of us who worked in its civil rights division can attest. . . .
"Over the last six years, this Justice Department has ignored the advice of its staff and skewed aspects of law enforcement in ways that clearly were intended to influence the outcome of elections."Rovian Theory Watch
Jon Carroll writes in his San Francisco Chronicle column: "If those eight U.S. attorneys were fired at the behest of Karl Rove for real or imagined disloyalty to the president (and that does seem to be the case), then what were the 85 other prosecutors doing right? . . .
"See, the thing is, there's an election coming up in 2008. There are likely to be disputes about what happened in the voting booths. A pliable federal prosecutor would be a useful thing to have around when legal challenges are starting. Since the plan to fire the attorneys had been in the works for two years, it could be an example of Karl Rove's ability to think long term. Just an idea."Iraq Watch
I wrote yesterday about the bind Bush is in, now that both houses of Congress have succeeded in attaching a timetable for troop withdrawal to the funding bill he so desperately needs to keep fighting the war in Iraq -- and about Bush's pugnacious reaction.
Maura Reynolds writes in the Los Angeles Times that "the White House and Congress are careening toward their biggest policy confrontation in more than a decade. . . .
"At the moment, neither side has much incentive to compromise, because the war is a signature issue for both. The president has wagered his legacy on the outcome of his decision to invade Iraq, and Democrats owe their control of Congress largely to voters angered by the war's deepening losses. . . .
"When it comes, Bush's veto is expected to leave each side accusing the other of perfidy: The president will accuse Congress of cutting off funds for troops in the middle of the battlefield, and Democratic leaders will accuse Bush of stubbornly ignoring the will of the American people, the true needs of the troops and the raw power of common sense.
"Also likely is a scenario that drags the confrontation out for months, probably through the summer, with each side trying to fix blame for the stalemate on the other."
Here is the text of Bush's speech.
Shailagh Murray and Jonathan Weisman write in The Washington Post: "In his most combative comments yet, President Bush mocked Democratic lawmakers yesterday for including a deadline for troop withdrawals and 'pork' projects in an Iraq spending bill, declaring that 'the American people will know who to hold responsible' if funding for the war stalls. . . .
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) shot back: "'Calm down with the threats. There is a new Congress in town,' Pelosi said at a Capitol Hill news conference. 'We respect your constitutional role. We want you to respect ours.' . . .
"What comes next depends on whether Bush or the Democrats blink."
Sheryl Gay Stolberg and Carl Hulse write in the New York Times: "Mr. Bush and Congressional Democrats are already deadlocked over the Democrats' demands for testimony from top White House officials in an inquiry into the firing of federal prosecutors. The president's remarks on Wednesday, a day after the Senate voted for the first time in favor of setting a withdrawal date, set the stage for a second clash.
"That puts Mr. Bush in the difficult position of fighting the new Democratic majority on two fronts, both the war spending and the prosecutors. On Wednesday, he seemed in no mood to back down from the war spending fight. . . .
"'We hope it doesn't have to come to this type of brinksmanship, staring down the Congress, but as you saw today the president feels very strongly,' said Dan Bartlett, counselor to Mr. Bush. 'The feedback we've been getting from our allies on the Hill -- and we agree with them -- is that this is an issue we shouldn't shirk from.'"
The New York Times editorial board writes that Bush's reaction to Tuesday's Senate action "was instantaneous, familiar in its contempt for views that do not follow his in lockstep, and depressing in its lack of contact with reality."Poll Watch
CBS News reports: "More than half of Americans support the U.S. House provision setting a timetable that calls for most U.S. troops to be out of Iraq by September, 2008. According to a new CBS News poll, 59% of those surveyed favored the provision while 37% are opposed."Et Tu, Abdullah?
Hassan M. Fattah writes in the New York Times: "King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia told Arab leaders on Wednesday that the American occupation of Iraq was illegal and warned that unless Arab governments settled their differences, foreign powers like the United States would continue to dictate the region's politics. . . .
"King Abdullah has not publicly spoken so harshly about the American-led military intervention in Iraq before, and his remarks suggest that his alliance with Washington may be less harmonious than administration officials have been hoping....
"Last week the Saudi king canceled his appearance next month at a White House dinner in his honor, The Washington Post reported Wednesday. The official reason given was a scheduling conflict, the paper said."Immigration Watch
Nicole Gaouette writes in the Los Angeles Times: "With President Bush looking to counter a legacy increasingly marred by the war in Iraq, the White House has launched a bold, behind-the-scenes drive to advance a key domestic goal: immigration reform.
"For a month, White House staffers and Cabinet members have met three to four times a week with influential Republican senators and aides to hash out a consensus plan designed to draw a significant number of GOP votes. . . .
"The intense effort -- conceived by the president's chief political strategist, Karl Rove -- is intended to ensure that Bush will achieve at least one crucial policy victory in the last two years of his presidency."
Democrats consider some aspects of Bush's plan much too restrictive -- but far from shifting his position to appeal to them, Bush is apparently adding even more restrictions, in an attempt to win over Republicans.
David Espo writes for the Associated Press: "The Bush administration floated elements of an immigration plan on Wednesday that would make it harder for millions of illegal immigrants to gain citizenship than under legislation passed by the Senate last year, according to officials in both parties."Oval Office Watch
Peter Baker writes in The Washington Post: "President Bush met at the White House this week with a Russian general who has been accused of overseeing some of the most notorious atrocities against civilians during the brutal second war in Chechnya.
"Bush welcomed Gen. Vladimir Shamanov to the Oval Office Monday in Shamanov's capacity as co-chairman of a U.S.-Russian commission on missing soldiers. . . .
"Russian troops under Shamanov rampaged through the village of Alkhan-Yurt in December 1999, killing 17 civilians, according to human rights investigations. The soldiers looted homes and shot those who got in the way, including a woman over 100 years old. Shamanov threatened to shoot villagers who pleaded with him to halt the 'cleansing operation,' investigators found. Rather than prosecute, the Kremlin gave Shamanov a medal -- a medal he appeared to wear to the Oval Office."Nomination Withdrawn
Rick Klein writes in the Boston Globe: "President Bush yesterday abruptly withdrew his choice to become ambassador to Belgium in the face of blistering criticism from Senator John F. Kerry and other Democrats over the nominee's financial support for the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth, a group that tarnished Kerry's war record in the 2004 presidential campaign.
"The White House withdrew Sam Fox's nomination less than an hour before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee was to vote on whether to recommend his confirmation by the full Senate. . . .
"The decision surprised observers and lawmakers, including Kerry, who said he was prepared to strongly argue against Fox's nomination at the hearing. The White House had been privately telling senators in recent days that Bush badly wanted Fox, one of his top fund-raisers, confirmed and dispatched to Brussels."Bush's Book Club
Jacob Weisberg writes in Slate about the latest selection in Bush's "book club": "A History of the English-Speaking Peoples Since 1900," by conservative British writer Andrew Roberts. "Bush invited Roberts for a discussion over lunch at the White House earlier this month. The author was joined by Dick Cheney (who was recently photographed carrying the book), Rove, and a group of neoconservative intellectuals including Norman Podhoretz and Gertrude Himmelfarb, along with various other officials and conservative journalists."
After eviscerating the book, Weisberg concludes: "Are we sure we want a president who spends so much time reading? The leader who loves books that tell him he is great and right may be worse than the leader who does not love books at all."Perino Watch
Howard Kurtz writes in The Washington Post about White House spokeswoman Dana Perino, who is subbing for ailing press secretary Tony Snow: "At 34, the former Capitol Hill aide has been thrust into what can be a harsh spotlight, but for now seems to be coping without too much squinting. While she lacks Snow's practiced ease before the cameras, Perino projects an earnest, ever-polite demeanor, like an airline ticket agent who keeps smiling as irate customers demand to know why their flight has been canceled."More RTNDA Humor
Matea Gold writes in the Los Angeles Times: "The annual gathering of scores of broadcast journalists in the low-ceilinged ballroom of the Washington Hilton has long generated its share of provocative humor, such as Bush's jokes in 2004 about not being able to find weapons of mass destruction.
"This year's atmosphere, however, was decidedly more rollicking than usual."
Some of Bush's lines:
"I have to admit we really blew the way we let those attorneys go. You know you botched it when people sympathize with lawyers," he said.
"Between the Congress and the press, there is a lot of scrutiny in this job. Not a day goes by that I don't get scrutineered one way or the other. The press is a lot tougher the second term. It's reached the point I sometimes call on Helen Thomas just to hear a friendly voice.
"No matter how tough it gets, however, I have no intention of becoming a lame duck President -- unless, of course, Cheney accidentally shoots me in the leg. . . .
"Considering what's next -- President Clinton, of course, wrote a very successful presidential memoir, with 10,000 pages or something. I'm thinking of something really fun and creative for mine -- you know, maybe a pop-up book."
Incidentally, Bush's line about the "good old days" was recycled from the Alfalfa Club dinner in late January, as reported in my January 30 column.Online Humor
The satirical Onion writes: "White House Secret Service Agent Anthony Panucci is being called a hero after intercepting what could have been a critically damaging question aimed directly at President Bush during a press conference in the Rose Garden Tuesday. . . .
"Although Panucci is not allowed to discuss the specifics of his White House anti-interrogative work, Secret Service director Mark Sullivan said Wednesday that in recent weeks agents had picked up 'a lot of chatter' targeting Bush."Cartoon Watch