By Dan Froomkin
Special to washingtonpost.com
Tuesday, September 18, 2007; 12:52 PM
President Bush is prioritizing.
It used to be he could install pretty much anyone he wanted pretty much anywhere in the federal government.
When it came to top jobs, that typically meant loyal, compliant members of his inner circle. They not only shared his views on issues across the board -- but they weren't going to exhibit any of that pesky independence thing.
In today's political climate, however, Bush has come to realize that he can't always get what he wants. But if he plots cleverly enough, he can get what he needs.
In a new attorney general, what Bush needs is someone who will support the radical and unprecedented expansion of executive power that has become the hallmark of his administration.
Michael B. Mukasey fits the bill.
Putting someone who has his own opinions in such a key position inevitably comes at a risk for the president. But what might once have been considered liabilities by this White House -- Mukasey's lack of partisan credentials, his unfamiliarity with the department he is to run or the Bush way of doing things -- are now seen as assets. They mean he can't be dismissed as a hack and is in no danger of spilling any secrets in a confirmation hearing.
That's not to say that Mukasey's swift confirmation is a done deal. Before anointing a successor to Attorney General Alberto Gonzales, Democrats want to pry from the White House information that would help them more fully understand the Gonzales legacy. And Mukasey owes the country some straight talk about what, if any, parts of that legacy he intends to undo.Not Like the Others
Michael Abramowitz and Dan Eggen write in The Washington Post: "President Bush opted to try to avoid a confirmation fight by nominating Michael B. Mukasey to be attorney general, concluding that the retired federal judge shares his approach to national security issues, but without the appearance of partisanship, administration officials and others close to the White House said yesterday. . . .
"Bush gave serious consideration to former solicitor general Theodore B. Olson, but the president's top advisers thought Olson would face too many obstacles in the Senate, according to those familiar with Mukasey's selection. . . .
"One top presidential adviser said the focus of the last 16 months of the administration will be ensuring that Bush and his successor have the necessary tools to fight terrorists."
James Oliphant writes in the Chicago Tribune that "Mukasey arrives with a reputation of being bullish on national security but relatively independent of politics, with almost no ties to the Bush administration.
"In other words, it's a different page than the one typically found in the Bush playbook -- a change Democrats welcomed, with some going as far as to hope it was the beginning of a new day in this, the seventh year of the president's administration. . . .
"The president has made a habit of relying on those he trusts over strangers, whether it was appointing Condoleezza Rice as secretary of state, trying to put Harriet Miers on the Supreme Court or turning to Alberto Gonzales, the man Mukasey is nominated to replace, as attorney general.
"But there are signs that this time, the White House has other things on its mind (Iraq and the economy being just two) and is not spoiling for a fight."
Tom Raum of the Associated Press sees the continuation of a trend: "Mukasey's nomination follows a second-term pattern for Bush that is becoming more pronounced: nominating seasoned individuals who command wide bipartisan respect, often to replace highly partisan and divisive officeholders.
"That includes Robert Gates, who replaced Donald Rumsfeld at the Pentagon; Wall Street veteran Henry Paulson as Treasury secretary, following John Snow; and Robert Zoellick at the World Bank, replacing Paul Wolfowitz, one of the original architects of the Iraq war.
"'In his first term, there were three criteria. Loyalty, loyalty and loyalty. The fourth, which occasionally came in, was competence,' said Stephen Wayne, a political scientist at Georgetown University. 'At this point, I think he wants people who will basically support his administration and have decent credentials.'"But First: Turn Over the Documents
Sheryl Gay Stolberg and David M. Herszenhorn write in the New York Times: "Two Senate Democrats warned Monday that the Judiciary Committee would delay confirmation of President Bush's choice for attorney general unless the White House turned over documents that the panel was seeking for several investigations. . . .
"Senators Patrick J. Leahy of Vermont and Charles E. Schumer of New York -- vowed on Monday to use the nomination to extract information from a reluctant White House.
"'All I want is the material we need to ask some questions about the former attorney general's conduct, on torture and warrantless wiretapping, so we can legitimately ask, "Here's what was done in the past, what will you do?"' Mr. Leahy, the Judiciary Committee chairman, said. . . .
"The White House wants Mr. Mukasey confirmed by Oct. 8, when the Senate leaves for its next recess. But Mr. Leahy said there would be no quick confirmation without the documents. He said he had told the White House counsel, Fred F. Fielding, that 'cooperation with the White House would be central' to scheduling hearings."
Abramowitz and Eggen, however, report that "White House officials said they will not give in to such pressure. . . . 'No' was the answer one senior adviser gave when asked whether the White House is willing to tie the nomination to the production of such documents."
Richard B. Schmitt explains in the Los Angeles Times: "For months, the Bush administration and Democrats have been deadlocked over documents that could shed light on the role the White House played last year in the firing of nine U.S. attorneys. Democrats view the purge as politically motivated.
"They also are demanding access to internal Justice Department memos that might provide information on a dispute over whether a pivotal post-Sept. 11 anti-terrorism program was legal."Record Review
Philip Shenon and Benjamin Weiser write in the New York Times that a review of Mukasey's record "shows that he would defend the administration on the issue that matters most to the president, national security. . . .
"Mr. Mukasey, 66, now in private practice in Manhattan, has repeatedly spoken out to support the administration's claim to broad powers in pursuing terrorist threats, especially in conducting electronic surveillance of terrorism suspects and in imprisoning them before trial.
"As a judge after the Sept. 11 attacks, he ordered the detention of young Muslim men as so-called material witnesses in terrorism cases, decisions that were criticized by immigration lawyers and praised by the Justice Department.
"Mr. Mukasey has endorsed provisions of the USA Patriot Act, the law passed by Congress after 9/11 to grant wide new law-enforcement power to the executive branch. The measure has been universally condemned by civil liberties groups."
Amy Goldstein and Dafna Linzer write in The Washington Post: "Mukasey's willingness to defend aggressive legal anti-terrorism measures before a tough audience helps to explain his appeal to President Bush."
Marc Ambinder writes for the Atlantic: "Make no mistake: this is about policy. The president cares more about his 'terrorist surveillance program,' national security letters, and aggressive anti-terrorism prosecutions that he does about where a nominee goes to church or how many abortion-related cases he has argued. . . .
"Mukasey is fairly unique among federal judges for having anticipated and sanctioned many of the arguments the Bush Justice Department and David Addington employed to justify detaining enemy combatants. . . .
"In short, he is, in the eyes of President Bush and Vice President Cheney, the perfect advocate for the President's national security policies. He is the perfect foil for Democrats -- the administration, anticipating the fight about the renewal of the covert surveillance statute, wants the best team possible."
John Podhoretz writes in his New York Post opinion column that after presiding over the trial of the "Blind Sheik," Omar Abdel-Rahman, Mukasey was considered a possible target for violent reprisal.
"[H]e and his wife basically lived for years inside a security cocoon," Podhoretz writes.
"[T]hey were surrounded by a platoon of U.S. marshals, who stood guard outside their home and went everywhere with the Mukaseys - to the grocery store, the movie house, the bookstore, dinner with friends . . .
"For his service to his country as a U.S. district court judge, Mukasey was compelled to surrender his freedom, in a certain sense, for a decade."
David G. Savage writes in the Los Angeles Times that Mukasey "may have an opportunity to break a logjam in Washington between two opposing views: Bush administration lawyers insist that 'enemy combatants' have no rights and can be held indefinitely in military prisons, and civil libertarians argue that these accused terrorists and foreign fighters deserve all the rights of the U.S. legal system, including full hearings in federal court.
"Mukasey, 66, has proposed something in between. Writing in the Wall Street Journal last month, he tentatively endorsed the idea of 'a separate national security court staffed by independent, life-tenured judges.' He urged Congress to focus on how to 'fix a strained and mismatched legal system.'"
Michael Isikoff writes for Newsweek about Mukasey's independent streak, displayed "most notably four years ago, when he reamed out one of the Justice Department's chief lawyers in the celebrated case of 'enemy combatant' Jose Padilla."
But in a 2004 Wall Street Journal op-ed, Mukasey delivered a rousing defense of the USA Patriot Act antiterrorism law --- along with a striking argument that the government is always entitled to the benefit of the doubt.
Mukasey wrote: "When we speak of constitutional rights, we generally speak of rights that appear not in the original Constitution itself, but rather in amendments to the Constitution--principally the first 10. Those amendments are a noble work, but it is the rest of the Constitution--the boring part--the part that sets up a bicameral legislature and separation of powers, and so on."
Mukasey suggests that by refusing to put the bill of rights in the original Constitution, the drafters were sending a message "that the government it establishes is entitled, at least in the first instance, to receive from its citizens the benefit of the doubt."
That attitude alone strikes me as enough to make Vice President Cheney happy about Mukasey's selection.
Indeed, here's what Cheney had to say about Mukasey in a speech yesterday: "The office of Attorney General of course has special significance in this time of war. The nation's top law enforcement officer has a duty to ensure that the rights and freedoms of the American people are protected, and that includes freedom from the fear of terrorist attack. Judge Mukasey is a fine public servant who knows from experience the challenge that terrorism presents to our country. He has presided over some of the most significant terrorism prosecutions in the history of the nation. We look forward to this good man's confirmation and to his stewardship of the Department of Justice."The Harriet Miers Legacy
The White House apparently learned its lesson from the Harriet Miers debacle: This time, before nominating someone without in-your-face conservative credentials, get the conservatives on board.
Stolberg and Herszenhorn write in the Times that "the White House had to sell the nomination to conservatives, and over the weekend, top aides to Mr. Bush made a furious attempt to do so, inviting at least six leading conservative thinkers to the White House for meetings with Mr. Mukasey. Participants said a range of issues were discussed, from Mr. Mukasey's views on national security matters to his Republican pedigree."
From yesterday's official briefing by a "senior administration official:"
Q: "What are you going to do to reach out to those on the right who have expressed some misgivings about Judge Mukasey?"
Senior administration official: "The White House representatives and the Judge, himself, have met with those people already . . . and that will be continuing as we go forward. . . . The Judge met with, I believe, six people on Sunday. . . . We had promised them that we would not release their names. But obviously if one would seek them out, I'm sure that they would acknowledge one way or the other, if they cared to."
In her inaugural briefing as press secretary, Dana Perino got questions about that outreach:
Q: "Do you make him available to left-wing groups, as you did to conservatives?"
Perino: "That hasn't happened yet and I wouldn't anticipate it."
The one report from the meet-and-greets I've seen came from William Kristol, on the Weekly Standard Web site Sunday night. So what did the two men talk about? Mukasey "will, I believe, come to judgments similar to Olson's on key issues of executive power and the war on terror," Kristol wrote.
And: "Mukasey testifying on behalf of Bush's FISA legislation will be like Petraeus testifying on the surge. He'll be an able public spokesman because he can't be caricatured as a partisan apologist, and the Democrats won't be able to lay a glove on him."
At least one conservative is peeved, however. Richard A. Viguerie, the "funding father of the conservative movement" and author of Conservatives Betrayed, issued a statement yesterday saying: "This nomination is an invitation to liberal Democrats to run rough-shod over the remainder of Bush's politically weakened presidency."Opinion Watch
The New York Times editorial board writes: "Mr. Mukasey is clearly better than some of the 'loyal Bushies' whose names had been floated, but that should not decide the matter. The Senate needs to question him closely about troubling aspects of his record, and make sure he is willing to take the tough steps necessary to repair a very damaged Justice Department. . .
"As a judge, he was too deferential to the government. . . .
"Mr. Mukasey also needs to be asked, in detail, how he intends to fix the Justice Department. There is strong evidence that federal prosecutors brought cases to help Republicans win elections. Mr. Mukasey needs to promise that he will get to the bottom of these matters, and that he will make available the critical documents and witnesses that the administration has withheld.
"Mr. Mukasey also needs to explain how he plans to remove the partisan political operatives put in nonpartisan positions under Mr. Gonzales and, more broadly, how he plans to restore the department's integrity."
The USA Today editorial board writes: "He's nearly certain to be seen as an improvement over his predecessor. Whether he's enough of an improvement -- particularly in putting the law above political loyalty -- is the question that should decide whether he is confirmed."
The Los Angeles Times writes: "Mukasey has questions to answer, but if he can rise above the administration's ambivalence about the rule of law, he might ably serve as attorney general."
Anthony Romero, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union, writes in a USA Today op-ed: "The stakes are too high to settle for anything less than a pledge under oath to take specific steps to put the Justice Department on the right side of the law, and bring some accountability."Cheney Reappears
The Vice President has suddenly been out and about again -- but only in front of screened audiences, of course.
Tabassum Zakaria writes for Reuters: "Vice President Dick Cheney on Friday accused critics of the administration's war strategy of ignoring the bloodshed and chaos he said would follow a premature U.S. troop withdrawal."
The Washington Post's Michael A. Fletcher nominates this, from Cheney's speech at the Ford museum, as quote of the week: "I'm told researchers like to come and dig through my files, to see if anything interesting turns up. I want to wish them luck -- but the files are pretty thin. I learned early on that if you don't want your memos to get you in trouble some day, just don't write any." Think Progress has a video clip.
Yesterday, Cheney spoke at a Republican fundraiser in Kansas City: "While the President and I won't be on the ballot next year, we'll be active in elections because they matter a great deal to the country," he said.
Cheney also weighed in on the Moveon.org ad that asked: "General Petraeus or General Betray Us?"
Said Cheney: "Like most Americans, I admire the integrity and the candor that General Petraeus showed in his hearings before Congress. And the attacks on him by MoveOn.org in ad space provided at subsidized rates in The New York Times last week were an outrage."
According to a Washington Post/ABC News poll taken shortly before Petraeus's testimony, only 39 percent of Americans said they expected his report to "honestly reflect the situation in Iraq;" 53 percent expected him to "try to make things look better than they really are."
And the Times did not offer Moveon.org any kind of special deal.Poll Watch
CBS reports: "Most Americans continue to want troops to start coming home from Iraq, and most say the plan President Bush announced last week for troop reductions doesn't go far enough, according to a CBS News poll released Monday.
"While the president spoke of a long-term commitment to Iraq in his nationally televised address, a time frame longer than two years is not acceptable to most Americans. . . .
"The poll also found that despite optimistic assessments of the U.S. troop surge by Mr. Bush and Gen. David Petraeus, the top U.S. commander in Iraq, Americans are unconvinced that the surge is working.
"Only about one in three (31 percent) said the surge has made things in Iraq better, while more than half (51 percent) say it's had no impact. Eleven percent say it's made things worse."Iran Watch
Ann Scott Tyson writes in The Washington Post: "Despite the report of continued Iranian involvement in Iraq, a former top U.S. Middle East commander, retired Army Gen. John P. Abizaid, emphasized in a speech yesterday the need to 'contain' the Iranian regime -- even if it becomes a nuclear-armed state -- and stressed that war with Iran should be considered a last resort.
"'I believe that we can contain Iran,' Abizaid said in a talk at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. He said the United States and other countries must vigorously press Tehran to 'cease and desist' from obtaining nuclear weapons.
"Still, he said, 'There are ways to live with a nuclear Iran,' adding: 'Iran is not a suicide nation. . . . I don't believe the Iranians intend to attack us with nuclear weapons. We have the power to deter Iran should it become nuclear.'"
George Jahn writes for the Associated Press: "The chief U.N. nuclear inspector urged Iran's harshest critics Monday to learn from the Iraq invasion and refrain from 'hype' about a possible military attack, calling force an option of last resort."
Said Mohamed ElBaradei: "I would hope that everybody would have gotten the lesson after the Iraq situation, where 700,000 innocent civilians have lost their lives on the suspicion that a country has nuclear weapons."Rove Watch
Karl Rove continues his Hillary-bashing ( but to what end?) in a Wall Street Journal op-ed today: "As the latest government-heavy plan announced by Hillary Clinton yesterday once again shows, the answers politicians offer on health care highlight the deep differences between liberals and conservatives. This is a debate Republicans cannot avoid. But it is one we can win--if we offer a bold plan. Conservatives must put forward reforms aimed at putting the patient in charge. . . .
"Mrs. Clinton may think Americans want to trade freedom and innovation for the illusory security of government regulation and surrender control of their health decisions to government bureaucrats. My bet is 2008 will teach us something different if Republicans make health care a centerpiece issue."Bush: Because I'm Right
Here's columnist Kathleen Parker on the Chris Matthews Show on Sept. 9 about a recent encounter she had with Bush: "I actually had a moment of one on one with him, and I asked him just straight out. I said, 'How do you keep going, given the unpopularity of the war and just the general assault on his policies?' And he just -- he unflinchingly says, 'Because I know I'm right.'"
From a speech by Democratic Rep. John P. Murtha yesterday: "A week ago on a Sunday talk show, a reporter expounded on a personal moment with the President in the White House when she asked him, 'Mr. President, how do you continue to press forward when the war is so unpopular and things seem to be going so wrong in Iraq?' The President responded, 'Because I am right.'
"Right about what Mr. President?
"Right about weapons of mass destruction?
"Right about Saddam's involvement in 9-11?
"Right about mission accomplished?
"Right about thinking he could fight this war on the cheap?
"Right at the ease at which Iraq could be transformed into a pillar of democracy?"Et Tu, Amigo?
Paul Bedard writes for U.S. News: "At the White House, the president has got to be muttering 'some friend' when he pores over the new autobio from his old buddy Vicente Fox, Mexico's former leader. That's because Fox raps his border pal as stubborn and 'the cockiest guy I have ever met in my life.'... He blames Bush's stubbornness on Iraq for bad international relations, calls his Spanish 'grade-school level,' and admits he didn't think Bush would ever become president."Milbloggers Redux
I wrote about Bush's visit with milbloggers in yesterday's column.
Paul McLeary writes for the Columbia Journalism Review that "initial reports are embarrassingly thin, reading like warmed over Pravda dispatches from a quivering party hack. In the end though, this is exactly what the White House was counting on when it set up this little pow-wow. The invited blogs have reasonably large audiences, and even if their readers have already taken a big slurp of the Bush Kool-Aid, it can't hurt to rally the troops now and then. Adding a bit of presidential hero-worship to the bigger PR push following last week's testimony by Ambassador Crocker and General Petraeus creates enough noise to keep the 'thirty percenters' (the president's approval rating for the better part of two years) happy."Grrrlpower
Julie Mason blogs for the Houston Chronicle: "It was so retro: The first lady's office invited 22 female White House correspondents for lunch and conversation with the first lady today. . . .
"There was all kinds of skirmishing beforehand because initially, the event was billed as 'on background.' It's difficult to invite 22 journalists to anything (let alone grrrlpower with the first lady) and declare the whole thing not-for-attribution. Problems, problems. So after negotiation, part of the discussion was put on the record and questions were permitted, and lunch was off the record. . . .
"Mostly, they wanted to talk about No Child Left Behind, which is up for reauthorization and facing all kinds of political and other hurdles. No good scoop on Jenna's wedding, unfortunately. . . .
"Anyway -- some men of the press corps are pouting and harumphing about this exclusionary lunch, demanding with hands on hips how we'd feel if the president had a guys-only lunch. Whatevs, dudes."Slapstick Presidency
James Wolcott writes in Vanity Fair that from the slapstick genius of his China trip to his spitball contests with the press, Bush has the makings of a major reality-TV star.Cartoon Watch