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Why Karl Rove Cared

By Dan Froomkin
Special to washingtonpost.com
Monday, May 14, 2007; 1:02 PM

Why would Karl Rove want to fire a bunch of U.S. attorneys?

If you think it seems out of character, you don't know Rove -- or more precisely, you don't know the two sides of Rove. President Bush's powerful adviser is one part spreadsheet-carrying, vote-counting political wonk, and one part no-holds-barred, brass-knuckled political operative.

Vote-counting Rove knows that -- particularly in battleground states, where a few votes can make all the difference -- every little bit helps. Brass-knuckled Rove has energetically used government power to meet political ends.

Vote-counting Rove has long been obsessed by voter fraud, either because (according to him) it threatens the integrity of the elections process or because (according to his critics) it gives Republicans an excuse to pursue measures that suppress poor and minority turnout. They also disagree on whether fraud is widespread (Rove) or rare (his critics).

And it's not hard to believe that brass-knuckled Rove decided at some point that politically appointed federal prosecutors were important tools in his bag of tricks -- tools that occasionally needed a little sharpening, or replacement.

Dan Eggen and Amy Goldstein write in today's Washington Post: "Nearly half the U.S. attorneys slated for removal by the administration last year were targets of Republican complaints that they were lax on voter fraud, including efforts by presidential adviser Karl Rove to encourage more prosecutions of election-law violations, according to new documents and interviews. . . .

"It has been clear for months that the administration's eagerness to launch voter-fraud prosecutions played a role in some of the firings, but recent testimony, documents and interviews show the issue was more central than previously known. The new details include the names of additional prosecutors who were targeted and other districts that were of concern, as well as previously unknown information about the White House's role. . . .

"New information also emerged showing the extent to which the White House encouraged investigations of election fraud within weeks of November balloting.

"Rove, in particular, was preoccupied with pressing [Attorney General Alberto] Gonzales and his aides about alleged voting problems in a handful of battleground states, according to testimony and documents.

"Last October, just weeks before the midterm elections, Rove's office sent a 26-page packet to Gonzales's office containing precinct-level voting data about Milwaukee. A Justice aide told congressional investigators that he quickly put the package aside, concerned that taking action would violate strict rules against investigations shortly before elections, according to statements disclosed this week."

Margaret Talev and Marisa Taylor wrote for McClatchy Newspapers on Friday: "Only weeks before last year's pivotal midterm elections, the White House urged the Justice Department to pursue voter-fraud allegations against Democrats in three battleground states, a high-ranking Justice official has told congressional investigators."

I've written a fair amount on voter fraud over the past several months.

The Monica Problem

Dan Eggen and Paul Kane write in The Washington Post: "A federal judge yesterday paved the way for a former aide to Attorney General Alberto R. Gonzales to testify in Congress about the firings of U.S. attorneys, granting her limited immunity from prosecution so she can tell the House Judiciary Committee what she knows.

"Under the order from Chief U.S. District Judge Thomas F. Hogan, Monica M. Goodling 'may not refuse to testify, and may not refuse to provide other information' if asked by Congress."

Eric Lipton has more on Goodling in the New York Times. Among other things, he writes, Goodling "helped maintain lists of all the United States attorneys that graded their loyalty to the Bush administration, including work on past political campaigns, and noted if they were members of the Federalist Society, a conservative legal group.

"By the time Ms. Goodling resigned in April -- after her role in the firing of the prosecutors became public and she had been promoted to the role of White House liaison -- she and other senior department officials had revamped personnel practices affecting employees from the top of the agency to the bottom."

Bush's Congressional Relations

Michael Abramowitz writes in The Washington Post: "Every few weeks, President Bush invites House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), Senate Majority Leader Harry M. Reid (D-Nev.) and their GOP counterparts to the White House for a discussion of Iraq and other issues of the day. By the accounts of those in the room, the meetings are gracious, formal -- and rarely productive.

"Sitting at a table in the Cabinet Room, Bush generally offers an opening statement, turns to Pelosi and then Reid for their views, and usually gives Republicans the last word. Vice President Cheney often sits in, saying nothing. There is usually little genuine back-and-forth before the leaders emerge for a media stakeout outside the West Wing. . . .

"Despite months of forced bonhomie -- prompted by the GOP loss of Congress last fall -- little trust has grown between Bush and the congressional Democrats, according to officials at both ends of Pennsylvania Avenue."

And consider this: "The trouble for the White House is that increasingly, the mistrust may not be not limited to Democrats."

Michael Duffy and Massimo Calabresi write for Time: "It's happening almost every day now: Congressional Republicans signaling in public the limits of their patience with the war in Iraq -- and the Bush Administration's handling of it. . . .

"The once sturdy Republican support for the war isn't giving away overnight. But, six months after the pasting at the polls in November, the foundations are now visibly and audibly cracking. Once that begins, it is very difficult to halt."

Ahead in Iraq

Warren P. Strobel writes for McClatchy Newspapers: "Now that moderate Republicans have told President Bush that time is running out on his Iraq policy, he'll have to demonstrate real progress in a matter of months or face choices that range from the highly unpleasant to the nearly unthinkable.

"September, only four months away, is increasingly looking like a deadline. By then, it should be known whether Bush's 'surge' strategy of increased U.S. troops in Iraq is having an impact and whether Iraqis have undertaken long-promised changes to ease sectarian warfare. The 2008 U.S. presidential election will be in full cry.

"After more than four years of conflict in Iraq, analysts say, there aren't many options left."

Benchmark Watch

Tina Susman writes in the Los Angeles Times: "It has not even reached parliament, but the oil law that U.S. officials call vital to ending Iraq's civil war is in serious trouble among Iraqi lawmakers, many of whom see it as a sloppy document rushed forward to satisfy Washington's clock.

"Opposition ranges from vehement to measured, but two things are clear: The May deadline that the White House had been banking on is in doubt. And even if the law is passed, it fails to resolve key issues, including how to divide Iraq's oil revenue among its Shiite, Kurdish and Sunni regions, and how much foreign investment to allow. Those questions would be put off for future debates.

"The problems of the oil bill bode poorly for the other so-called benchmarks that the Bush administration has been pressuring Prime Minister Nouri Maliki's government to meet. Those include provincial elections, reversing a prohibition against former Baath Party members holding government and military positions and revision of Iraq's constitution."

Anna Mulrine writes for U.S. News: "The president last week signaled his support for benchmarks to gauge progress by the Iraqi government, if not consequences for failing to meet them.

"But which yardsticks to use, and how best to measure movement forward? The supplemental defense bill passed by the House last week laid out goals such as 'eliminating militia control of local security' and 'ensuring fair and just enforcement of laws.' Military officials point out, however, that progress on those points can be difficult to quantify. Measures that are easier to track-the House bill also calls on the Iraqi government to enact a 'broadly accepted' hydrocarbon law to divvy up oil profits among Iraqis-can be helpful but may not be the path to reconciliation that many hope, says Frederick Kagan, a neoconservative military expert at the American Enterprise Institute and one of the chief architects of the surge. 'Sunnis aren't fighting because of the hydrocarbon law,' he says. 'They're fighting because they still think they should be in control of the country.'

"Such sectarian resentments can also make what has in the past been a closely watched metric-the training and equipping of Iraqi security forces-a dubious measure of progress, say military analysts. 'The thing that worries me is not the technical proficiency of the Iraqi police,' says Stephen Biddle, a national security expert at the Council on Foreign Relations and adviser to Gen. David Petraeus, the commander of U.S. forces in Iraq. 'The problem is, who are they fighting for?' It's a concern echoed on Capitol Hill. 'Does the growing number of trained and equipped security forces in fact drive the violence in Iraq?' asks a congressional staffer. 'We don't know, because we have such poor metrics for tracking these trainees after they graduate.'"

Sheryl Gay Stolberg writes in the New York Times: "Nobody in Washington seems to agree on what progress actually means -- or how, precisely, it might be measured."

Lamest of Ducks

Albert R. Hunt writes for Bloomberg News: "While many other major democracies have, or are about to have, new leaders, America is mired in a rudderless status quo. A new embarrassment or scandal - Alberto Gonzales, Paul Wolfowitz, Karl Rove - seems to surface daily. The only good news for the White House is that occasionally these stories overshadow the bad news coming out of Iraq.

"Bush is reviled around much of the world and has precious little political capital at home. . . .

"For a year and a half, there have been various rationalizations for Bush's second-term presidential problems and guarantees that a solution was at hand.

"Josh Bolten, who replaced Andrew Card as the chief of staff, was supposed to refocus the administration. After Rove escaped the shadow of a special prosecutor, he and the president were going to be re-energized. When Donald Rumsfeld, the face of the Iraq debacle, was fired, there was supposed to be a new start."

Reducing the Suffering

Bush repeatedly insists that the violence from Iraq that Americans see on their television screen is taking a toll on the country.

"I understand how some Americans have had their confidence shaken," Bush said in Cleveland last year. "Others look at the violence they see each night on their television screens, and they wonder how I can remain so optimistic about the prospects of success in Iraq. They wonder what I see that they don't."

And in a January interview with PBS's Jim Lehrer, Bush was asked about shared sacrifice and responded: "Well, you know, I think a lot of people are in this fight. I mean, they sacrifice peace of mind when they see the terrible images of violence on TV every night."

Leave aside the fact that relatively little violence from Iraq -- particularly sectarian killings or attacks on U.S. troops -- appears on American television screens. Now the Iraqis are apparently taking an additional step to shelter Americans and others from the imagery of war.

AFP reports: "Iraq's interior ministry has decided to bar news photographers and cameramen from the scenes of bomb attacks, operations director Brigadier General Abdel Karim Khalaf said Sunday.

"His announcement was the latest in a series of attempts to curtail press coverage of the ongoing conflict, which has already attracted criticism from international human rights bodies."

Cheney Speaks

On his way home from a weeklong trip to the Middle East, Vice President Dick Cheney today briefed the reporters who had been traveling with him. From the pool report by Todd Gillman of the Dallas Morning News:

"CHENEY: The last time we did one of these, I tried to do it on background but I took a lot of crap for it, frankly (laughter). So we'll do this one on the record. That will necessarily involve some limitations in terms of what I can say."

Gillman's "headlines" from the talk:

"--Cheney says he won Arab support on this trip regarding US policy in Iraq -- and that it was not contingent on progress on the Middle East peace process.

"-- He repeated a warning to Iraqi leaders that time is running out.

"-- He sees no contradiction in the US agreeing to ambassador-level meetings with Iran in Baghdad and his own tough talk toward Iran on Friday aboard aircraft carrier USS John C. Stennis in the Persian Gulf."

Gillman has been blogging the trip. And in a Dallas Morning News story today he notes a glaring absence during Cheney's voyage: "One topic that apparently never came up was a once-central element of American policy -- the push for political reform and democracy in Egypt and other Arab allies in the region. That seems to have become an unaffordable luxury as the administration wrestles with more urgent problems. . . .

"There was no indication that the vice president had raised the topic of democracy. Rather, at each stop, the reported focus has been on encouraging these countries to use their influence with Sunni groups inside Iraq to stabilize that country's fractious political environment. Mr. Cheney has also urged unity to block Iran's growing influence in the region."

Tom Raum writes for the Associated Press: "The vice president's tour appeared to have mixed results, and on some stops he found an eagerness to talk as much about the Israeli-Palestinian peace process as the situation in Iraq.

"On his final stop in Aqaba, for instance, the king asked Cheney to do something about the 'stagnation' in the peace process. 'We know there's a lot of challenges there,' he told Cheney during a picture-taking session."

Polling Mystery

The president says he doesn't care about the polls, but it's no secret White House aides watch them carefully. So this exchange from Thursday's briefing intrigued me:

"Q: Tony, you mentioned the polls, and talked about the Republican support. All the polls also show that big majorities of the American public do not support the war. Have you heard the President talk about how difficult it is to fight a war or prosecute a war without the public's support?

"MR. SNOW: The President understands the importance of public support. What's also interesting is that you see numbers coming up again on, do you think we're winning or do you think -- for instance, a pretty strong majority now, when asked, do you think we're losing, say no. That's an important data point. When it talks about, would you like the Americans to succeed, the answer is yes."

I asked Mark Blumenthal of pollster.com what Snow might have been talking about.

And in this blog post on the topic, Blumenthal explains that Snow was probably conflating two different questions. Yes, 55 percent of respondents said in a recent CNN poll that the war is not "lost", seemingly a turnaround compared to the 57 percent in a January Washington Post/ABC News poll who said the U.S. "is losing." But "lost" and "losing" are not the same thing. And by contrast, other recent polls show that by roughly two-to-one margins, Americans say the war is going "badly" or "not well."

Commencement Watch

Michael A. Fletcher writes in The Washington Post from Latrobe, Pa.: "Ignoring a simmering controversy about his visit that has roiled the St. Vincent College campus for weeks, President Bush on Friday urged the school's graduates to seek opportunities to serve others."

Jim Rutenberg writes in the New York Times: "Mr. Bush received warm applause upon stepping to the lectern. Wearing a purplish-blue academic robe, he did not address the war in Iraq in any detail, just once in thanking graduates who were joining the military, saying: 'You knew the risks of serving in a time of war, and you have volunteered to accept those risks. You have chosen a noble calling.'"

Here is the text of his address.

Jamestown Visit

Fredrick Kunkle and Steve Vogel write in The Washington Post: "President Bush marked the 400th anniversary of Jamestown's founding Sunday by praising colonists' indomitable spirit in the face of disaster and holding up the English settlement as a milestone on the path toward building American democracy. . . .

"Bush said the United States should use the occasion to renew its commitment to expanding liberty in the world, and he drew parallels between the nearly hopeless condition of the settlement's first days and current conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan."

Here is the text of his speech.

Warren Fiske writes for the Virginian-Pilot: "He's the president, he can do what he wants.

"On Sunday, George Bush wanted to conduct a 400-piece symphony playing at the 400th anniversary celebration of the first permanent English settlement in America, at Jamestown.

"Midway through a rousing rendition of 'The Stars and Stripes Forever,' Bush took the baton from JoAnn Falletta, musical director of the Virginia Symphony Orchestra. . . .

"Falletta said the commander in chief had a good ear.

"'He was very musical,' she said. 'He was cueing the brass; he was cueing the percussion. He kept the tempo going.'"

Does anyone have the video?

Texas Image Suffers

Ken Herman writes for Cox News Service: "The latest Texas era in Washington -- the last for a while, some say -- is grinding toward its last roundup, its final rodeo, the last stampede or any clich? you prefer about a state where even the clich?s are bigger. . . .

"So the time approaches to gauge the impact of the Connecticut-born Texas president (son of a Massachusetts-born Texas president) on the image of his beloved home state and its residents.

"Not good, says Southern Methodist University political scientist Cal Jillson.

"'He has fed into that sort of image of Texas as shooting from the hip and proceeding on the basis of your own sense rather than consulting more broadly and looking for common ground,' Jillson said. 'A lot of people think of that overconfidence, bordering on arrogance, ask-questions-later kind of view that has characterized George W. Bush, if not all Texans.'"

Coloring Book Bushisms

Xana O'Neill writes in the New York Daily News: "The 'Off-Color Coloring Book: The Bush Years' portrays the commander-in-chief in what can only be described as a less-than-flattering manner. . . .

"One illustration depicts the President guzzling beer in a grounded Air Force jet that is surrounded by empty cans. A second shows him in a skirt waving pom-poms as he perches atop a pyramid of Yale cheerleaders."

Cartoon Watch

David Horsey on Karl's manifesto; Tony Auth on benchmarks; Mike Luckovich on the Bush Bubble.

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