By Dan Froomkin
Special to washingtonpost.com
Wednesday, July 23, 2008; 12:56 PM
At his press conference two weeks ago, President Bush stiffly acknowledged that these were difficult times for many American families, while strenuously insisting that the economy is "basically sound."
But in private -- as captured on a video surreptitiously shot at a closed-door fundraiser last week -- a much more relaxed-looking president can be seen joking about the housing crisis and comparing Wall Street to an alcoholic.
The video was apparently shot on a cell phone, despite Bush's request to turn off all recording devices, and was obtained by Houston television reporter Miya Shay.
"It is uncertain, there's no question about it," Bush says at the beginning of the clip, apparently responding to a question about the economy. "Wall Street got drunk -- that's one of the reasons I asked you to turn off the TV cameras. It got drunk and now it's got a hangover. The question is how long will it sober up, and not try to do all these fancy financial instruments.
"And then we got a housing issue. Not in Houston -- and evidently not in Dallas -- because Laura was over there trying to buy a house today." Much laughter ensues among the well-heeled GOP donors, gathered in the $5 million home of a former energy company executive.
Someone yells out a question about Crawford and Bush replies: "I like Crawford. Unfortunately after eight years of asking her to sacrifice, I'm now no longer the decision maker. She'll be deciding, thanks for the suggestion. I suggest you don't yell it out when she's here. Later, I was telling her 'Hey honey, we've been on government pay now for 14 years, so go slow!'
"It's uh -- caused me to lose my train of thought."
Julie Mason and Alan Bernstein write in the Houston Chronicle: "The president's blunt remarks were a sharp departure from the more measured tones he uses publicly to discuss the economy and national housing market collapse."
Matt Jaffe blogs for ABC News: "Bush's remarks are a departure from the more conservative tone he usually takes when speaking to the press. Earlier last week, in fact, the president preached optimism about the economy in a nationally-televised news conference. . . .
"He acknowledged that the economy was experiencing 'a tough time', but did not compare the current situation to a hangover."
Stephanie Kirchgaessner writes in the Financial Times: "Mr Bush has rarely been caught on video making such frank remarks before a friendly audience about a politically sensitive topic, proving that even the carefully guarded White House is susceptible to being caught off guard in the new era of the endless internet campaign."
Sheryl Gay Stolberg writes in the New York Times: "The sentiments were no different from those Mr. Bush has voiced in public, said Tony Fratto, the deputy White House press secretary.
"'The president has made this point before,' Mr. Fratto said, adding, 'What the president is referring to is the fact that the markets were using very complex financial instruments that had grown up over the years, and when confronted with the shock of this housing downturn, they did not fully understand what the consequences were going to be.'"
Ironically, that very morning, at a fundraiser in Tucson, Bush had explicitly noted the threat posed by YouTube. As Daniel Scarpinato reported for the Arizona Daily Star: "So sensitive were Republicans about information getting out about the goings-on at the Tucson fundraiser . . . even W. himself made sure to ask the 400 or so people at the event to turn off any recording devices.
"'I don't know a lot about technology,' the president said, according to one insider, 'but I do know about YouTube.'"
This wasn't Bush's very first YouTube moment -- that honor belongs to amateur video of Bush in white tie and cowboy hat, crooning a ballad about all the scandals that had beset his administration to an appreciative crowd of journalists at this March's off-the-record Gridiron Club dinner.
But it does add to the body of evidence that Bush sometimes doesn't take serious things seriously -- especially when sacrifices are being borne by those who don't share his privileged background.A Veto Threat Vanishes
Less than two days after repeating a veto threat against a bipartisan housing bill, Bush abruptly buckled this morning.
Lori Montgomery writes for The Washington Post: "The White House announced this morning that President Bush will sign a massive package of housing legislation expected to be approved this week by Congress, despite his opposition to $3.9 billion in aid to communities hit hard by a housing crisis that has spawned 1.5 million foreclosures.
"White House press secretary Dana Perino said the president was persuaded that the parts are of the bill the administration favors -- including broad new authority for the Treasury Department to lend money to troubled mortgage finance giants Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac -- are too important and urgently needed to engage in 'a prolonged veto fight.'"
Benton Ives wrote for CQ on Monday that the White House had reaffirmed the veto threat. "'We have a veto threat on the bill -- that provision is one of the major concerns with the bill,' White House spokesman Tony Fratto said.
"Still, many lawmakers have said they doubt the president would follow through on that threat, given the ongoing housing slowdown and the inclusion of numerous White House priorities in the housing package."Endgame Watch
Carol D. Leonnig writes in The Washington Post: "Political appointees at the Department of Labor are moving with unusual speed to push through in the final months of the Bush administration a rule making it tougher to regulate workers' on-the-job exposure to chemicals and toxins.
"The agency did not disclose the proposal, as required, in public notices of regulatory plans that it filed in December and May. Instead, Labor Secretary Elaine L. Chao's intention to push for the rule first surfaced on July 7, when the White House Office of Management and Budget (OMB) posted on its Web site that it was reviewing the proposal, identified only by its nine-word title.
"The text of the proposed rule has not been made public, but according to sources briefed on the change and to an early draft obtained by The Washington Post, it would call for reexamining the methods used to measure risks posed by workplace exposure to toxins. The change would address long-standing complaints from businesses that the government overestimates the risk posed by job exposure to chemicals. . . .
"The department's speed in trying to make the regulatory change contrasts with its reluctance to alter workplace safety rules over the past 7 1/2 years. In that time, the department adopted only one major health rule for a chemical in the workplace, and it did so under a court order. . . .
"[T]he fast-track approach has brought criticism from workplace-safety advocates, unions and Democrats in Congress. Some accuse the Bush administration of working secretly to give industry a parting gift that will help it delay or block safety regulations after President Bush leaves office. . . .
"Last week, the proposal was defended in an opinion piece in the New York Sun written by Diana Furchtgott-Roth, a fellow at the conservative-leaning Hudson Institute. She. . . did not mention in the article that she was one of the consultants who worked with Labor beginning in September 2007 on a $349,000 outside study of the risk-assessment process. . . .
"The July submission of its proposal broke a deadline set by White House Chief of Staff Joshua B. Bolten, who had ordered that all agencies submit proposed regulations before June 1 and 'resist the historical tendency of administrations to increase regulatory activity in their final months.'"
Last month over at NiemanWatchdog.org, where I am deputy editor, I suggested that midnight rulemaking was one of several ways Bush officials might well try to cement their policies beyond January.A New Church Committee?
Tim Shorrock writes for Salon that "in the twilight of the Bush presidency, a movement is stirring in Washington for a sweeping new inquiry into White House malfeasance that would be modeled after the famous Church Committee congressional investigation of the 1970s. . . .
"Looking forward to 2009, when both Congress and the White House may well be controlled by Democrats, the idea is to have Congress appoint an investigative body to discover the full extent of what the Bush White House did in the war on terror to undermine the Constitution and U.S. and international laws. The goal would be to implement government reforms aimed at preventing future abuses -- and perhaps to bring accountability for wrongdoing by Bush officials.
"'If we know this much about torture, rendition, secret prisons and warrantless wiretapping despite the administration's attempts to stonewall, then imagine what we don't know,' says a senior Democratic congressional aide who is familiar with the proposal and has been involved in several high-profile congressional investigations."
Shorrock also writes: "A prime area of inquiry for a sweeping new investigation would be the Bush administration's alleged use of a top-secret database to guide its domestic surveillance. Dating back to the 1980s and known to government insiders as 'Main Core,' the database reportedly collects and stores -- without warrants or court orders -- the names and detailed data of Americans considered to be threats to national security. . . .
"Some . . . former U.S. officials interviewed, although they have no direct knowledge of the issue, said they believe that Main Core may have been used by the NSA to determine who to spy on in the immediate aftermath of 9/11. Moreover, the NSA's use of the database, they say, may have triggered the now-famous March 2004 confrontation between the White House and the Justice Department that nearly led Attorney General John Ashcroft, FBI director William Mueller and other top Justice officials to resign en masse."
Shorrock notes how his reporting builds on previous stories, including a July 2007 article in the New York Times in which Scott Shane and David Johnston wrote: "A 2004 dispute over the National Security Agency's secret surveillance program that led top Justice Department officials to threaten resignation involved computer searches through massive electronic databases, according to current and former officials briefed on the program."
Siobhan Gorman wrote in the Wall Street Journal in March: "According to current and former intelligence officials, [the NSA] now monitors huge volumes of records of domestic emails and Internet searches as well as bank transfers, credit-card transactions, travel and telephone records.... The NSA's enterprise involves a cluster of powerful intelligence-gathering programs, all of which sparked civil-liberties complaints when they came to light.... The effort also ties into data from an ad-hoc collection of so-called 'black programs' whose existence is undisclosed, the current and former officials say. Many of the programs in various agencies began years before the 9/11 attacks but have since been given greater reach."
And Christopher Ketcham wrote in Radar in May: "According to a senior government official who served with high-level security clearances in five administrations, 'There exists a database of Americans, who, often for the slightest and most trivial reason, are considered unfriendly, and who, in a time of panic, might be incarcerated. The database can identify and locate perceived 'enemies of the state' almost instantaneously.' . . . One knowledgeable source claims that 8 million Americans are now listed in Main Core as potentially suspect. In the event of a national emergency, these people could be subject to everything from heightened surveillance and tracking to direct questioning and possibly even detention."Mukasey Watch
Randall Mikkelsen writes for Reuters: "Congress should explicitly declare a state of armed conflict with al Qaeda to make clear the United States can detain suspected members as long as the war on terrorism lasts, U.S. Attorney General Michael Mukasey said on Monday.
"Mukasey urged Congress to make the declaration in a package of legislative proposals to establish a legal process for terrorism suspects held at Guantanamo, in response to a Supreme Court ruling last month that detainees had a constitutional right to challenge their detention.
"'Any legislation should acknowledge again and explicitly that this nation remains engaged in an armed conflict with al Qaeda, the Taliban and associated organizations, who have already proclaimed themselves at war with us,' Mukasey said in a speech to the American Enterprise Institute.
"'Congress should reaffirm that for the duration of the conflict the United States may detain as enemy combatants those who have engaged in hostilities or purposefully supported al Qaeda, the Taliban and associated organizations,' he said."
The ACLU called Mukasey's proposal "an enormous executive branch power grab. . . .
"'Mukasey is asking Congress to expand and extend the war on terror forever. Anyone that this president or the next one declares to be a terrorist could then be held indefinitely without a trial,' said Caroline Fredrickson, Director of the ACLU Washington Legislative Office. 'This is clearly the last gasp of an administration desperate to rationalize what is a failed legal scheme that was correctly rejected four times by the Supreme Court. With as little as five work weeks left in this Congress, there are more important issues than helping the lame-duck president cook up an indefensible plan to lock people up forever and throw away the key with no due process rights and limited judicial review.'"
Mukasey appears before the House Judiciary Committee today.
Eric Lichtblau writes for the New York Times: "From fending off calls to investigate accusations of torture to resisting a nationwide strategy against mortgage fraud, Mr. Mukasey has taken a go-slow approach that has surprised even some admirers, who see him as unwilling to break from past policies and leave his own imprint in the closing months of the Bush administration. . . .
"Halfway through his term, Mr. Mukasey has defended or let stand some of the most controversial policies that he inherited from [Alberto] Gonzales, including the treatment of detainees, the broad surveillance powers claimed by Mr. Bush and the White House's use of executive privilege in warding off demands from Congress for information.
"Last week, Democrats charged that Mr. Mukasey was using the shield of executive privilege to 'cover up' possible wrongdoing by the White House. The result, critics say, is that investigations have languished on some critical issues.
"Mr. Mukasey's approach stands in contrast, some observers say, to the more aggressive tack taken by Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates, who moved to repudiate some positions of his controversial predecessor, Donald H. Rumsfeld, after taking over at the Pentagon in December 2006."Iraq Watch
Matt Spetalnick writes for Reuters: "The White House said on Tuesday that Democratic presidential candidate Barack Obama's high-profile visit to Iraq may have been a 'distraction for many' but not for President George W. Bush.
"The Bush administration sought to play down the significance of Obama's trip after he ended it reaffirming that if elected he would withdraw U.S. troops in 16 months, something the White House opposes as an 'arbitrary' timetable. . . .
"Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki told Obama and other U.S. lawmakers traveling with him on Monday he hoped U.S. combat troops could be out of Iraq in 2010, a goal not far from Obama's own pledge on withdrawals.
"But White House spokeswoman Dana Perino denied any major differences between Bush and Maliki on the issue, saying they agree that any troop drawdown would depend on security gains."
John D. McKinnon, Yochi J. Dreazan and Elizabeth Holmes write in the Wall Street Journal: "Rapid developments in recent days are narrowing political differences over the way forward in Iraq and suggesting the outlines of a possible consensus on the coming end of U.S. combat involvement.
"President George W. Bush's announcement late last week that he will agree to a ' time horizon' for withdrawing U.S. combat troops was the first sign of coalescing. In the days that followed, Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki publicly endorsed a target date for withdrawal -- the end of 2010, roughly in line with the mid-2010 time frame advocated by Sen. Barack Obama, the presumed Democratic presidential candidate. . . .
"For their part, Bush aides seemed somewhat impatient with all the talk of pullout scenarios, and sought more recognition for their surge strategy."
Eugene Robinson writes in his Washington Post opinion column: "His new 'time horizon' formulation is just smoke, intended to obfuscate and stall. In six months, Iraq becomes somebody else's problem.
"The shift does put loyal supporters of Bush's Iraq policy in an untenable position, though. Their mantra has been that anyone who suggests a date for U.S. withdrawal, however vague or distant or aspirational, is being 'defeatist.' Now, logically, they ought to be saying the same thing about the president."Iran Watch
Walter Pincus writes in The Washington Post: "The Bush administration should stop talking about a military attack as an option if negotiations do not immediately halt Iran's uranium reprocessing program, two former national security advisers said yesterday.
"'Don't talk about "do we bomb them now or later?" ' said Brent Scowcroft, adviser to presidents Gerald R. Ford and George H.W. Bush, during a discussion at the Center for Strategic and International Studies on the negotiations between the United States and Iran.
"Scowcroft added that by mentioning that threat, 'we legitimize the use of force . . . and may tempt the Israelis' to carry out such a mission. . . .
"Zbigniew Brzezinski, adviser to President Jimmy Carter, described the Bush administration's policy of maintaining the option of military action as 'counterproductive.' . . .
"He added that a U.S. attack on Iran would be a 'disaster,' suggesting it could result in the U.S. fighting 'for at least two decades' on four fronts -- Iraq, Iran, Afghanistan and Pakistan.
"Brzezinski said he fears that if negotiations break down between now and the end of the year, some in the Bush administration might believe 'it justifies doing something.'"Bush Legacy Watch
Jesse Drucker writes in the Wall Street Journal: "In a new sign of increasing inequality in the U.S., the richest 1% of Americans in 2006 garnered the highest share of the nation's adjusted gross income for two decades, and possibly the highest since 1929, according to Internal Revenue Service data.
"Meanwhile, the average tax rate of the wealthiest 1% fell to its lowest level in at least 18 years. The group's share of the tax burden has risen, though not as quickly as its share of income."Pardons Watch
Jacob Leibenluft writes for Slate: "[C]an a president really pardon someone who hasn't even been charged with a crime?
"Yep. In 1866, the Supreme Court ruled in Ex parte Garland that the pardon power 'extends to every offence known to the law, and may be exercised at any time after its commission, either before legal proceedings are taken, or during their pendency, or after conviction and judgment.' . . .
"While pre-emptive pardons remain very rare, there are a few notable exceptions. Perhaps the most famous presidential pardon of all time occurred before any charges were filed. Gerald Ford's pardon of Richard Nixon absolved the former president of 'all offenses against the United States which he . . . has committed or may have committed or taken part in' between the date of his inauguration in 1969 and his resignation in August 1974. "
Jonathan Turley blogs: "With many Democrats still fuming over the refusal of Democratic leaders like Speaker Nancy Pelosi to allow even impeachment hearings into detailed allegations of crimes by President Bush in office, close Obama adviser (and University of Chicago Law Professor) Cass Sunstein recently rejected the notion of prosecuting Bush officials for crimes such as torture and unlawful surveillance. After Sen. Obama's unpopular vote on the FISA bill, it has triggered a blogger backlash -- raising questions about the commitment of the Democrats to do anything other than taking office and reaping the benefits of power."Karl Rove Watch
Johanna Neuman blogs for the Los Angeles Times: "With the House Judiciary Committee planning a hearing Friday on the Bush administration's use of executive privilege, public pressure is building to urge the committee to jail Karl Rove, the Bush White House political maestro.
"A coalition of organizations gathered 80,000 signatures on a petition calling on the committee to hold Rove in contempt for his refusal to obey its subpoena. Brave News Films, author of an earlier Internet effort to kick Joseph Lieberman out of the Democratic Party after his endorsement of Republican John McCain, released its petition, Send Karl Rove to Jail, in hopes of compelling Rove to testify under oath about his involvement in the prosecution of former Alabama Gov. Don Siegelman."The Batman We Deserve?
The New York Times editorial board blogs: "It does not take a lot of imagination to see the new Batman movie that is setting box office records, 'The Dark Knight', as something of a commentary on the war on terror. . . .
"Seven years after Sept. 11, the United States is caught up in a misbegotten war in Iraq, is granting immunity to telecommunications companies that helped the Bush administration illegally spy on the public, and is unwilling to unequivocally renounce torture as a tactic.
"That may explain why this summer's box office sensation is not a white knight, but a dark one. Call it cinema verite."
Film critic Dave Kehr asks in his blog: "Is the Dark Knight just George Bush with a better outfit, demanding that he be allowed all of the available 'tools' to combat terrorism, even if they include torture and eavesdropping?"
Spencer Ackerman writes in the Washington Independent that "the concepts of security and danger presented in Christopher Nolan's new Batman epic, 'The Dark Knight,' align so perfectly with those of the Office of the Vice President that David Addington, Cheney's chief of staff and former legal counsel, might be an uncredited script doctor."Awesome Watch
Andrea Higbie writes for Salon: "On Memorial Day, President Bush paid tribute to the troops and their families at Arlington National Cemetery. Of the men and women buried there, President Bush declared, 'They're an awesome bunch of people, and the United States is blessed to have such citizens.'
"What else is awesome? Just about everything. 'Thank you, Your Holiness,' the president publicly said to Pope Benedict XVI in mid-April when he became only the second pope in history to visit the White House. 'Awesome speech.' . . .
"In the waning days of George W. Bush's regime, it's worthwhile to examine his legacy: a devastating war, a ruined economy, soaring oil prices. But one way he has triumphed is by continuing to spread a certain word across this great land of ours. You can barely swing a Republican by the tail these days without hitting something, or someone, described as 'awesome.'"Late Night Humor
Here's Jon Stewart on administration officials' amazing lack of recall before the House Judiciary Committee. John Oliver tells Stewart: "I just hope everyone at home appreciates the magnitude of what they're witnessing here: Seven straight years this administration has been untouchable in hearings. . . . We're in a golden age of obstructed politics, and we don't even know it. So let's spend these last six months appreciating how lucky we are to have borne witness to this incredible low point in American democracy."Cartoon Watch
Mike Luckovich, Stuart Carlson and Nick Anderson on time horizons; Tom Toles, Ann Telnaes and Ben Sargent on Bush's Maliki problem; Jim Morin and Pat Bagley on McCain's Bush problems; Steve Sack on Bush's sudden conversion to diplomacy; Joel Pett on alternative energy.