The Exodus Begins

By Dan Froomkin
Special to
Wednesday, November 10, 2004; 12:01 PM

The White House is carefully controlling the release of information about the post-election exodus of top officials.

Consider the date of Attorney General John D. Ashcroft's resignation letter: Nov. 2.

But the White House -- including President Bush -- insisted publicly that no decisions had been made until yesterday, when they paired Ashcroft's resignation with the much less controversial departure of Bush's good friend, Commerce Secretary Donald L. Evans. (Evans's letter was dated yesterday.)

Today's press coverage makes it clear that accepting Ashcroft's resignation wasn't exactly a tough call for the White House -- although what apparently irked Bush and his aides more than all the controversy Ashcroft ignited was their perception that he was too publicity-hungry.

The Controlled Release

The White House has reportedly asked all top administration officials to decide by Thursday whether they want to stay for a second term.

Here's CNN's John King with Paula Zahn last night:

"ZAHN: Is it true, then, that there is an actual understanding, I guess contributed to by Andy Card, one of the president's chief advisers, that he doesn't want a whole bunch of these to happen at one time?

"KING: They do not want them to happen at one time. They want to stagger them out, if you will, manage them as they go. Again, we're told there could be one or two this week, not definitely, but we're told the possibility of one, two, maybe even three more announced this week. So they certainly want to put these out there.

"And the president has to name successors. He has to reach out to the key committees in Congress. They decided to tell us of these two decisions tonight. Secretary Evans' dated letter dated today, so that word released to the public pretty quickly. But it is remarkable. The president had a news conference and a Cabinet meeting in which this subject came up knowing full well the attorney general planned to leave. The president kept that secret.

"ZAHN: Pretty good secret keeper there."

Here's Tim Russert this morning on NBC's Today: "The one thing that the president is insisting upon, according to sources, is that there not be a wholesale departure from the cabinet, that it be staggered. Not only for public relations purposes, but also in terms of the war on terror. He doesn't want to be fighting nomination battles for state, attorney general and defense all at one time."

The Ashcroft Note

Here's the images and text of Ashcroft's five-page handwritten resignation letter.

Pundits in Washington this morning are scratching their heads over several parts of it.

For one, there is a distinct "Mission Accomplished"-style risk of hubris in this sentence: "The objective of securing the safety of Americans from crime and terror has been achieved."

And then there's this: "I have handwritten this letter so its confidentiality can be maintained until the appropriate arrangements mentioned above can be made."

That's oddly cloak-and-dagger. Is he saying that if he'd had his secretary type it, it would have leaked? What does that say about his confidence in his own team?

Pushed Out

Dan Eggen and Mike Allen write in The Washington Post: "Ashcroft -- aware of the controversy he has provoked and, according to friends, exhausted after his illness -- preemptively offered his letter before the White House initiated a formal discussion about his future. . . .

"A White House official said Bush considered Ashcroft's resignation at Camp David over the weekend and decided to accept it this week. . . .

"A longtime friend of Ashcroft's expressed bitterness that the White House had originally welcomed him as a lightning rod who drew criticism away from Bush, then decided not to stand by him. 'He was something to offer to evangelicals,' said the friend, who declined to be identified. 'They used him, and now they're done with him and he's being tossed aside.' "

Elisabeth Bumiller writes in the New York Times about Ashcroft's "tumultuous tenure in which he was praised for his aggressive fight against terrorists but assailed by critics who said he sacrificed civil liberties in the wake of the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks."

But perhaps more to the point, he "never developed a close relationship with Mr. Bush and annoyed some members of the White House staff who thought he was at times a grandstander who was overtly politicizing the Justice Department. One Republican close to the White House said on Tuesday night that Mr. Ashcroft had gotten a 'strong signal' from the administration that his resignation would be accepted."

James Vicini writes for Reuters: "Ashcroft gained a reputation for staging dramatic announcements on what the administration called its 'war on terror.'

"On May 26, 2004, he warned at a news conference that Osama bin Laden's al Qaeda terror network planned to attack the United States within the next few months. The attack never came.

"On June 10, 2002, Ashcroft stood in front of television cameras in Moscow and announced the arrest of Chicago gang member Jose Padilla in 'an unfolding terrorist plot' to detonate a radioactive 'dirty' bomb in the United States.

"White House officials later admonished him for exaggerating the threat."

Zachary Coile writes in the San Francisco Chronicle: "Insiders pointed to Bush's comments during the second presidential debate, when he acknowledged making errors in some of his high-level appointments.

" 'I made some mistakes in appointing people, but I'm not going to name them,' Bush said at the debate in St. Louis. 'I don't want to hurt their feelings on national TV.' "

Charlie Savage reminds us in the Boston Globe about a rare public sign of friction between Ashcroft and the White House several months ago: "In April, President Bush rebuked Ashcroft for declassifying Justice Department memos from the Clinton era showing deliberations involving Jamie Gorelick, the number two Justice official under Clinton who later was named to the Sept. 11 Commission, over how the CIA and FBI could share terrorism information."

Richard B. Schmitt writes in the Los Angeles Times: "His fervor for political theater proved to be a source of tension with White House staffers, who grew concerned at times that Ashcroft was attempting to grab the limelight at the expense of the president.

"His management style created other problems. He centralized control over the charging decisions of federal prosecutors, even overruling them on occasions when they were reluctant to seek the death penalty. . . .

"Ashcroft staffed his office of legal counsel with conservative political appointees who, advising the Pentagon, spelled out a strikingly broad view of White House power that freed the president and the military from the federal law and international treaties that barred the use of torture."

James Gordon Meek writes in the New York Daily News: "Sources said Ashcroft submitted his handwritten, five-page resignation letter before Election Day but was 'energized' after Bush's victory and told the White House through his aides he was willing to stay on indefinitely as the nation's top cop.

"The White House said no. Ashcroft will remain in office only until his successor is chosen."

Laura Sullivan writes in the Baltimore Sun: "Ashcroft -- who does not smoke, drink, gamble or dance -- peppered much of his first year with reminders of his faith. He held daily prayer sessions in his office and frequently quoted from the Bible in his prepared speeches. Those references quickly vanished as detractors charged that he was imposing religion on the secular state.

"His e-mail to Justice Department employees yesterday was notable in the revived use of religious references.

" 'That we have passed these three years in safety and security is a credit to you,' he wrote. 'But it would be the height of arrogance to assume we achieved this alone. The Psalms remind us: "Unless the Lord watched over the city, the watchman stands guard in vain." ' "

Alberto Gonzales

Eggen and Allen write in The Washington Post this morning: "Administration sources said Ashcroft's successor is likely to be White House counsel Alberto R. Gonzales."

Bumiller notes in the New York Times: "Mr. Gonzales, who grew up in a poor Mexican-American family and attended Harvard Law School, was appointed by then-Governor Bush to the Texas Supreme Court. He has been central in the administration's debate over what interrogation techniques are permissible for prisoners held since the Sept. 11 attacks, and is the author of a White House memorandum in which he wrote that the Geneva Conventions were 'quaint' and not suitable for the war against terrorism."

Maria Recio wrote recently in the Ft. Worth Star-Telegram about the challenges Gonzales would face getting confirmed for a Supreme Court position -- another possible destination.

"Gonzales may face opposition, but it's uncertain how much. He has written controversial memos, including one that surfaced during the Abu Ghraib prison scandal that said foreign detainees were not entitled to protections under the Geneva Conventions. Human rights groups said that legal interpretation contributed to the climate of abuse. . . .

"Gonzales also has connections to scandal-ridden energy giant Enron. He is a former partner in the Houston law firm Vinson and Elkins, which represented Enron. He also received $6,500 in campaign contributions from the company when he ran for re-election to the Texas Supreme Court."

Back this summer, before the furor over the abuses at Abu Ghraib unexpectedly dissipated, Gonzales was viewed as a possible liability for the White House.

Daniel Klaidman wrote in Newsweek in July: "Gonzales is at the center of the legal and political fallout over the administration's handling of the war on terrorism. As the president's legal gatekeeper, Gonzales was responsible for vetting some of the most controversial decisions: the treatment of prisoners, the line between aggressive but legal interrogation and torture, and the rights of 'enemy combatants.'

"The White House, and Gonzales in particular, are now left to explain those decisions in the wake of Abu Ghraib and the steady drip of leaked memos. . . .

"Friends say the White House counsel is 'beating himself up' over the mess. Gonzales, they say, fears he may not have served the president as well as he would have liked. Though he stands by the legal reasoning, he wishes he had been more attuned to the possible political consequences and had reined in some of the administration's more extreme voices."

The Evans Departure

Paul Blustein writes in The Washington Post: "Evans's most important function, according to administration insiders and outsiders, was as a confidant and extension of President Bush -- advising the president on tax cuts, cajoling Republican lawmakers to approve legislation lowering trade barriers and selling the administration's policies with key groups. . . .

"Evans, 58, who plans to return to Texas in January, is likely to be replaced by Mercer Reynolds III, a Cincinnati businessman who was finance chairman of the Bush-Cheney campaign, according to administration officials. Reynolds helped Bush buy into the Texas Rangers baseball team and was ambassador to Switzerland earlier in the administration."

Scott Lindlaw writes for the Associated Press: "Evans partied with Bush the night the president says he swore off drinking. It was 1986 and both men were celebrating their 40th birthdays. The lingering hangover from that night prompted Bush to abandon the bottle altogether, Bush has said."

Former Bush speechwriter David Frum writes in his blog: "President Bush will surely be able to replace Mr. Ashcroft with another capable conservative lawyer, but presidential best friends are a scarcer item.

"There are many reasons why second presidential terms are so often troubled, but one is this: One by one the people who knew the president 'back when' leave, to be replaced by those who know him only as the leader of the country. These newcomers tend to think that the president must know what he was doing -- after all, he was just re-elected -- and so they tend to defer to his instincts over their own judgment.

"President Bush still has Karl Rove of course and Karen Hughes is just a phone call away, but the not-large-to-begin-with number of his truly trusted advisers -- and critics -- has just shrunk by one. That's a heavy loss."

The Rove Victory Tour Continues

After visiting the talk shows on Sunday, senior adviser and top-of-the-world political strategist Karl Rove had lunch with dozens of print reporters yesterday.

Bennett Roth writes in the Houston Chronicle: "Karl Rove, President Bush's top political adviser, continued his public victory dance Tuesday, attributing Republican dominance in part to cultural issues such as gay marriage as well as a strong turnout of regular churchgoers. "

Adam Nagourney writes in the New York Times: "President Bush's chief political adviser, Karl Rove, said Tuesday that opposition to gay marriage was one of the most powerful forces in American politics today and that politicians ignored it at their peril."

Ken Herman writes for Cox News Service: "Presidential political adviser Karl Rove charged Tuesday that wealthy Democrats who poured millions of dollars into efforts to defeat President Bush were trying to derail democracy."

Jeff Zeleny writes in the Chicago Tribune: "In a luncheon meeting with reporters on Tuesday, hosted by the Christian Science Monitor newspaper, Rove listed the influence of money as one of biggest surprises of the race. The election's outcome, he said, turned on three issues: security, values and the economy. . . .

"With a folder of election returns at his fingertips, Rove ticked through a state-by-state list of results he said offered evidence that the president had won a mandate of the American people in his 51 percent to 48 percent win over Sen. John Kerry. Critics disagree, saying the victory was too narrow to be deemed a mandate. . . .

"Rove declined to discuss specifics about the first 100 days of Bush's second term or about what the nation would look like when Bush leaves office.

"When asked to speculate about the Republican presidential field in 2008, Rove demurred. With a smile, he said: 'This will be the last presidential campaign that I will ever do.' "

Here are excerpts from the lunch. On his role in a new Bush administration:

"If the president wants and my wife agrees, I will continue to focus on my responsibilities as senior adviser . . . and to kibitz on issues and receive the brunt of the president's displeasure when I screw up."

Blair's Project

Barry Schweid writes for the Associated Press: "Tony Blair proved himself an invaluable ally to President Bush in Iraq, and now Bush needs the British prime minister again to help him fix his damaged relations with Europe.

"Not that Blair agrees with Bush on everything. Blair is pushing for a high-profile U.S. peace effort in the Middle East, while Bush wants to take time to sort things out."

Bush Talk to Mubarak

Sometimes you have to hear about a White House phone call from the folks at the other end of the phone.

Reuters, citing Egyptian state media, reports: "President Bush called Egypt's president Tuesday to underline his commitment in his second term to working toward a Palestinian state, Egyptian state media said.

"Bush outlined a Middle East peace plan supporting the creation of a Palestinian state in June 2002, but only once the Palestinian people dumped their president, Yasser Arafat. . . .

"Egyptian state media said Bush had phoned President Hosni Mubarak, who is a regular mediator in Israeli-Palestinian peacemaking, to discuss steps he would take to 'cooperate more actively' with Middle East peacemaking."

Chirac Calls (Finally)

Kerstin Gehmlich reports for Reuters: "French President Jacques Chirac finally phoned George W. Bush on Tuesday to congratulate him a week after his re-election as U.S. president. . . .

"Chirac's office said he had told Bush he looked forward to continuing the two nations' 'constructive and friendly relations'. . . .

"Many other state leaders congratulated Bush in person well before Chirac made his phone call. German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder -- another critic of the war in Iraq -- called Bush on Friday while Chirac only sent Bush a letter last week."

It's a Sign

John Thornhill, Harvey Morris and Guy Dinmore, writing in the Financial Times, see the Mubarak and Chirac calls as a sign. They write: "The US was yesterday consulting its European and Arab allies over a fresh diplomatic initiative in the Middle East, as Yassir Arafat, the Palestinian leader, slipped deeper into a coma in a Paris hospital."

Visiting the Wounded

Elisabeth Bumiller writes in the New York Times: "As thousands of American-led troops continued their attack on the city of Falluja on Tuesday, President Bush spent two hours with wounded service members at the Walter Reed Army Medical Center and afterward wished godspeed to the troops in Iraq."

Warren Vieth writes in the Los Angeles Times: "Bush, in his first public remarks on the two-day assault against insurgents holed up in the western Iraqi city, said coalition forces were doing battle with an enemy intent on 'trying to stop the march of freedom' in the Middle East."

Kenneth R. Bazinet writes in the New York Daily News: "The President and First Lady met privately with 42 soldiers in two wards, including patients suffering from bone and skull fractures and some whose legs were blown off in combat. Bush also chatted with a family whose son was in surgery at the time."

Here is the text of Bush's remarks to the press pool.

Pennsylvania Avenue Reopens

Manny Fernandez writes in The Washington Post: "The street between the White House and Lafayette Square was officially reopened to pedestrians about 11 a.m. after a ceremony with first lady Laura Bush. The section of roadway between 15th and 17th streets, one of the most popular tourist destinations in Washington, has been inaccessible to the public since January, when construction of security and aesthetic improvements began."

Washington Post architecture critic Benjamin Forgey concludes that the not fully completed avenue, at least for now, looks "enormously barren and somehow sad."

Here is the text of the first lady's remarks.

Immigration Watch

Glenn Kessler and Kevin Sullivan write in The Washington Post: "Secretary of State Colin L. Powell gave Mexican officials a sober report Tuesday on the prospects of winning congressional approval to grant legal status to millions of undocumented aliens in the United States. He said President Bush would place a 'high priority' on pushing his stalled plan through Congress, but he said he did not want to 'overpromise' success."

Bill Sammon writes in the Washington Times: "President Bush yesterday moved aggressively to resurrect his plan to relax rules against illegal immigration, a move bound to anger conservatives just days after they helped re-elect him.

"The president met privately in the Oval Office with Sen. John McCain to discuss jump-starting a stalled White House initiative that would grant legal status to millions of immigrants who broke the law to enter the United States.

"The Arizona Republican is one of the Senate's most outspoken supporters of expanding guest-worker programs and has introduced his own bill to offer a path to citizenship for illegal immigrants."

The Vote Fraud Buzz

Rick Klein writes in the Boston Globe: "A week after Kerry conceded and Bush declared victory, those assertions and scores of others from New Mexico to North Carolina have kept alive fierce speculation that Bush's victory either wasn't real or wasn't as decisive as it seemed. With memories fresh from the 2000 irregularities, e-mails and Web postings accuse Republicans of stealing an election.

"Much of the traffic is little more than Internet-fueled conspiracy theories, and none of the vote-counting problems and anomalies that have emerged are sufficiently widespread to have affected the election's ultimate result. . . .

"Still, with reports swirling on the Internet, six Democratic members of Congress have asked the Government Accountability Office to investigate. Leading academics have joined the fray as well, saying that the integrity and future of the nation's voting system demand a vetting of all claims."

Julia Malone writes for Cox News Service: "Activists are forming groups with names like ' '' and members of 'Ohio Recount 2004' are assembling to share their suspicions.

"On the airwaves of predominantly black radio station WAOK in Atlanta, the hot topic this week has been whether hackers rigged computer voting equipment or to ask why the exit polls early on Election Day seemed to point to a Kerry victory.

"None of the conspiracy theorists has provided proof of a widespread error that might have changed the election outcome. Independent groups who monitored the voting found problems scattered around the country but nothing decisive, and election officials have generally dismissed the Internet chatter."

Jake Tapper and Avery Miller of ABC News also debunk some of the rumors.

Author Live Online

Ron Kessler was Live Online today at 11, talking about Bush's second term and his lineup. Kessler, is the former Washington Post reporter whose book, "A Matter of Character: Inside the White House of George W. Bush," a highly flattering depiction of the first term.

Who Gets to Go?

The New York Daily News reports: "Neither President Bush or Secretary of State Powell will attend Yasser Arafat's funeral if he dies. Instead, the Daily News has learned, the government will turn to a former President, Bill Clinton or Jimmy Carter, to lead the U.S. delegation."

© 2004