The Blame Game

By Dan Froomkin
Special to
Monday, December 13, 2004; 12:02 PM

The embarrassing implosion of Bernard B. Kerik's nomination as homeland security secretary blew open a large window into the White House's traditionally super-secret internal operations, as hordes of officials quickly started doing everything possible (short of going on the record) to avoid the blame.

Jim VandeHei and Mike Allen wrote in Sunday's Washington Post that anonymous White House officials are insistent that the controversy had nothing to do with poor vetting and everything to do with Kerik not telling them the truth.

"Kerik, who withdrew his own nomination Friday and apologized yesterday for embarrassing Bush, was asked numerous times by White House lawyers if he had employed an illegal immigrant or failed to pay taxes on domestic help, the sources said."

Nevertheless, VandeHei and Allen wrote, "some are blaming Bush's insistence on speed and secrecy for failing to catch this and other potential red flags in Kerik's background."

For his part, Bush actually went out of his way to not say anything about Kerik over the weekend. On Saturday, he "teased reporters by cupping his hand to his ear as he walked across the White House's South Lawn to his helicopter, as if to invite a question. Asked whether he was upset about Kerik, the president smiled and cupped his hand to his ear again, even though he appeared to have heard the question."

David E. Sanger writes in the New York Times: "The review of Mr. Kerik's record was centered in the office of the White House counsel, Alberto R. Gonzales, who is himself in the midst of the preconfirmation process as the president's nominee to succeed John Ashcroft as attorney general.

"Administration officials seemed eager on Sunday to dispel any notion that Mr. Gonzales's office short-circuited the process in the case of Mr. Kerik or was not alert to potential problems in his background. They described a vetting process more intense than usual before a presidential nomination, asserting that Mr. Kerik brought his troubles on himself by failing to flag the issue of his housekeeper despite repeated questioning on the subject."

Mark Hosenball, Charles Gasparino and Michael Isikoff write in Newsweek: "White House officials are defensive about the vetting process. . . . But some administration officials acknowledge that the president's predilections work against a careful review. Bush hates leaks and enjoys popping surprise announcements on the press. He liked the idea of Kerik -- the self-made tough guy -- and he dismissed as gossip or press carping newspaper stories about Kerik's bending the rules."

Norah O'Donnell reports this morning on NBC News that "the White House is now scrambling to find a new homeland security director. They put the blame squarely on Bernard Kerik, calling this his 'screwup' for repeatedly failing to disclose potential legal problems."

Dan Janison and Graham Rayman write in Newsday: "Rep. Peter King (R-Seaford) said the White House seemed to have been caught off guard.

"He said that as late as 7 p.m. Friday, just 90 minutes before Kerik telephoned President George W. Bush and withdrew, the White House faxed King talking points defending the nomination for his use during a TV appearance."

Liberal bloggers like Josh Marshall are having a ball with this story. So many targets.

Not Just the Nanny

And although Kerik's nanny problems are what officially sunk him, it turns out there were several other controversies erupting -- or about to erupt -- that the White House either missed or wasn't concerned about.

Newsday reported that Kerik just last week was forced to testify in a civil lawsuit about an alleged affair with a subordinate. The New York Daily News reported Sunday that Kerik accepted thousands of dollars in cash and gifts without making proper public disclosures. Newsweek on Friday Web-posted a story that a New Jersey judge had issued a warrant for Kerik's arrest in 1998 in a civil dispute over unpaid condominium fees. And this morning, the New York Times describes a "web of relationships Mr. Kerik developed with officials of a New Jersey construction company long suspected by New York authorities of connections to organized crime."

Possible Replacements For Kerik

VandeHei and Allen write that sources say "potential replacements include White House homeland security adviser Frances Fragos Townsend; White House deputy chief of staff for operations Joseph Hagin; Asa Hutchinson, undersecretary for transportation and border security at Homeland Security; and Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Mike Leavitt. An announcement is expected before Christmas."

AFP reports that two senators yesterday encouraged Bush to pick Sen. Joseph I. Lieberman (D-Conn.).

If Lieberman took the job, Connecticut Gov. Jodi Rell, a Republican, would presumably appoint a Republican to serve out the rest of Lieberman's term.

Giuliani's Christmas Crow

Elisabeth Bumiller and Eric Lipton write in the New York Times: "Former Mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani had a Christmas dinner at the White House on Sunday night, and he attended with an important goal in mind: to apologize to his host for pushing Bernard B. Kerik as homeland security secretary and then watching as Mr. Kerik's nomination collapsed in legal problems and embarrassed the president of the United States.

"That embarrassment has put a new strain on a mutually beneficial relationship that has always been more complicated than mere friendship."

The Man Behind Bush's Words

Alan Cooperman writes in The Washington Post about some rare on-the-record comments by evangelical White House speechwriter Michael Gerson, who has written almost all of Bush's major speeches since 2000.

"Like many evangelical Christians, President Bush believes that God is at work in his life. But he has avoided claiming that God is behind his presidency or U.S. foreign policy, his chief speechwriter said.

" 'The important theological principle here, I believe, is to avoid identifying the purposes of an individual or a nation with the purposes of God,' Michael Gerson said. 'That seems a presumption to me, and we've done our best to avoid the temptation.' . . .

"Gerson also caustically dismissed the idea that the invasion of Iraq or U.S. policy toward Israel were prompted by theories about the second coming of Jesus. 'The president is not reading Tim LaHaye for his Middle East policy,' he said, referring to the best-selling 'Left Behind' series of apocalyptic novels.

Kathleen Parker, a columnist for the Orlando Sentinel, wrote last week that Gerson told her that "Bush is an 'incrementalist.' And as such is misunderstood by both his allies and enemies.

"Gerson was in Key West this week to speak to a group of journalists about religion, politics and public life. In conversation following dinner one evening, he explained to me that while Bush is firm in his conviction that every human life should be welcome and legally protected, he is also firm in his belief that social consensus must precede change."

For more about Gerson, see my Who's Who in the White House page. Notably, Gerson has a West Wing office -- see my West Wing floorplan.

The Thinker

Dan Balz today in The Washington Post profiles the White House's "resident thinker," Pete Wehner -- whose last job was as Gerson's deputy.

"Wehner runs the White House Office of Strategic Initiatives (or the Office of Strategery, as it is known inside the building after a 'Saturday Night Live' skit spoofing the president's mangling of the English language). The OSI was Rove's idea, created shortly after President Bush was elected in 2000. It is the smallest unit in the Rove empire, with six employees, and represents the closest thing the White House has to an in-house think tank. . . .

"A current folder on Wehner's desk is labeled: '2d Term/Analysis.' It is a compendium of how other presidents often went wrong in their second terms, history Bush hopes not to repeat. . . .

"He stays in close touch with conservative thinkers and prods, gently, writers and columnists as he tries to make the case for the administration's policies."

Read these next two paragraphs slowly:

"Wehner said he hopes that one legacy of the OSI will be the inculcation of 'intellectual seriousness' in the White House. . . .

"Given those ambitions, Wehner was asked whether he finds it ironic or is infuriated that Bush is stereotyped, fairly or not, as a president who is not interested in ideas and is not intellectually curious. 'I'm not,' he said, 'because in the end, the truth wills out.' "

Here's Wehner's bio box. And here's an example of Wehner at work: In a recent essay, Paul M. Weyrich, one of the founders of the religious conservative movement in politics, wrote about how the leftist media elites are revealing their contempt for the values voters.

"Pete Wehner, Deputy Assistant to the President and Director of Strategic Initiatives, was nice enough to compile some of the worst statements made by the elitists," Weyrich wrote before sharing some of them.

Where's the Interrogation Memo?

Jess Bravin writes in the Wall Street Journal: "Last June, the White House disavowed a Justice Department opinion providing possible justifications for torture of terrorism detainees -- and promised to quickly produce a revision.

"Six months later, that process remains unresolved, leaving the Defense Department, the Central Intelligence Agency and other agencies without definitive legal guidance for interrogations in the war on terrorism. . . .

"The Justice Department memo, dated Aug. 1, 2002, said the president, as commander in chief, could set aside federal laws and international treaties prohibiting torture. Its narrow definition of torture permitted infliction of 'cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment,' and it provided a set of possible justifications officials could use to escape criminal liability for war crimes."

The memo was to (and the promise to revise it was from) White House Counsel Alberto R. Gonzales, since then nominated by President Bush to be attorney general.

The Pootie-Poot Problem

Peter Baker writes in The Washington Post: "The political crisis in Ukraine has touched off a fresh debate inside the White House and foreign policy offices over how President Bush should handle Russian President Vladimir Putin's increasingly authoritarian rule at home and assertive presence abroad, according to administration officials. . . .

"The widening rift between Washington and Moscow represents a dramatic deterioration in ties since Bush first met Putin in 2001 and famously declared that he had looked into the former KGB officer's soul and found a friend. Bush invited the Russian to his Texas ranch and Camp David, while around the White House he referred to Putin by the affectionate nickname of 'Pootie-poot.' . . .

"Advisers said Bush no longer harbors illusions about Putin's soul."

Baker is Live Online today at 11 a.m. ET to talk about his story.

Fit But Fatter

Our president is 5'11.75" tall and weighs 199.6 pounds.

Here, as far as I can tell exclusively on the Web, is his full medical report, from his much-delayed physical on Saturday.

Jim VandeHei wrote in The Washington Post: "President Bush is fit, but a few pounds fatter, heading into his second term in office, doctors who conducted three hours of physical testing on the president yesterday said.

"Bush, 58, blamed a 5.6-pound weight gain over the past 16 months on heavier eating during the election campaign.

Here is the transcript of Bush's comments after the exam at the National Naval Medical Center in Bethesda.

"As far as my own physical goes, I'm still standing," he said. "I, obviously, have just gone through a campaign, because -- let me say, I've obviously gone through a campaign where I probably ate too many doughnuts, if you get my drift. My New Year's resolution has become apparent after getting on the scales. And although I think the doc will put out a report that shows you that I'm physically fit, and still able to get on the stress tests, I'm a little overweight. And therefore, I fully intend to lose some inches off my waistline and some pounds off my frame. But other than that, I'm feeling great."

Social Security Watch

Edmund L. Andrews writes in the New York Times: "Of all the arguments being made to replace part of Social Security with private retirement accounts, few are more seductive and more misleading than the prospect of earning higher returns. . . .

"But that logic is as flawed as a perpetual motion machine. If it were true, the government could erase Social Security's entire projected deficit by selling bonds at 3 percent and buying stocks that yield 7 percent.

"Why doesn't the government do just that? Because higher returns are inseparable from higher risk. No risk, no reward. And if the goal is to enhance security, if people are to have a solid reason to expect a particular level of wealth at retirement, the risks have to be relatively low. . . .

"Get ready to hear a lot about this next week, when President Bush is host for a two-day economic conference that is expected to focus sharply on Social Security."

Medal Watch

Bob Deans writes for the Cox News Service: "What do Nelson Mandela, Pope John Paul II and Hank Aaron have in common? All have led lives widely judged as heroic, in their own way, and all have received the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the country's highest civilian honor, from President Bush.

"On Tuesday, Bush will add three more names to the list of Medal of Freedom winners when he bestows the prestigious honor upon former CIA Director George Tenet, retired Army Gen. Tommy Franks and former diplomat L. Paul Bremer, noting the key roles they played in the war in Iraq and their long service to America. . . .

"But with U.S. forces battling insurgents bent on disrupting Iraqi elections next month, some analysts wonder whether it's premature to be holding out key architects of the Iraq policy as national heroes."

Here a list of past recipients.

Energy Secretary Nominee

Jonathan Weisman wrote in Saturday's Washington Post: "President Bush nominated Deputy Treasury Secretary Samuel W. Bodman yesterday as his second secretary of energy, tapping an administration veteran to lead the Energy Department at a time of unstable oil prices and rising nuclear proliferation concerns. . . .

"Bodman's nomination was widely seen as further evidence that the White House is tightening its grip on policy. Deputy Cabinet officials rarely move to the top spot in their own agencies, much less in different ones. Deputies generally manage day-to-day operations rather than formulate policy."

Here is the transcript of Bush and Bodman's statements on Friday.

The Snow Job, Continued

Daniel Okrent, public editor of the New York Times, publishes comments by New York Times White House correspondent Richard W. Stevenson about how it came to pass that White House reporters said Treasury Secretary John Snow was on his way out -- before he was retained last week.

Stevenson explains: "My story in Monday's paper was built around information I got from people I trust. I believed it to be completely accurate then. The reporting done by my colleagues at The Times and competitors at papers like The Washington Post since then strongly suggests that it was largely or wholly correct at the time it was written."

Syndicated columnist Robert Novak, who I gather has some good sources at the White House, writes: "Retention of John Snow as secretary of the Treasury was viewed in the capital's inner circles as a defeat for presidential adviser Karl Rove, who wanted a high-profile manager of President Bush's second-term economic program.

"Two Wall Street executives were approached as Snow's possible successor, but neither expressed any interest. Without a ready replacement, it was decided at the White House to relieve Snow from his uncertainty and keep him in office."

Novak Watch

Speaking of Novak, Charles Duhigg writes in the Los Angeles Times: "In Washington, there's only one question more pressing than who leaked Plame's name: Why isn't Bob Novak going to jail?"

He explores five theories:

• Novak was never subpoenaed.

• Novak was subpoenaed but refused to testify.

• Novak was subpoenaed but (a) invoked his 5th Amendment rights or (b) received immunity.

• Novak was subpoenaed and has already testified.

• Novak is a target.

What Goes Around

Michael Forsythe writes for Bloomberg News: "One of the best indicators of superior returns on U.S. stocks during President George W. Bush's first term was contributions to Republican candidates.

"The 50 companies that most favored Republicans with their political donations delivered an average 44 percent return on investment over the last four years, while the Standard & Poor's 500 Index fell 4.1 percent, assuming dividends were reinvested."

Bloggers in the Oval Office

Were they the first bloggers to penetrate the Oval?

Blogger Jeff Jarvis has the news that blogging Iraqi brothers Omar and Mohammed of spent some time with the president in the Oval Office last week.

"Omar and Mohammed just told me about their visit to the Oval Office this week," Jarvis writes.

"They said President Bush assured them that we would finish the job this time.

"They told the President that they were grateful for their liberation and that the coalition did a great job.

"Bush asked them about security in Iraq. They told him that they feel safe now. . . .

"Bush also went to Omar, as a dentist, and said he wanted him to fix a cavity.

"Mohammed said the President understood what blogs are and their importance and they found the staff in the White House views reading blogs as part of their jobs now. The brothers said they were in the White House not just as Iraqi citizens but as representatives of the blogosphere."

Christmastime at the White House

Elisabeth Bumiller writes in the New York Times: "The White House at Christmas is always a little like Grand Central Terminal. This year at 15 holiday receptions from Dec. 2 through Dec. 21, Mr. Bush and the first lady will shake hands and pose for pictures with 6,500 guests. Since each reception lasts at least two hours, that amounts to some 30 presidential hours in a receiving line.

"What's new this year is that so many people from the campaign are passing by Mr. Bush like a diorama of the last 12 months. For the humming White House political machine, the holiday parties are an efficient way of spreading thanks. For Mr. Bush, it is the campaign that never ends."

Kata Kertesz writes for the Associated Press that Bush last night "spoke of the many service members who are far from home during the holiday season. 'These families and the troops they love can be certain that they have the support and gratitude of our nation.'

"Bush made his brief remarks at a taping of the 23rd annual 'Christmas in Washington' concert, which benefits the Children's National Medical Center in the nation's capital."

Washington Post columnist Al Kamen in his special way does his part to echo the White House Historical Association's warning not to buy the 2004 White House Christmas Ornament (cost, $16) from unauthorized resellers adding a markup.

Press Corps Watch, Part I

Paul Bedard writes in U.S. News & World Report's Washington Whispers column: "Only the pampered White House press corps could whine about getting too much food on trips. But it's true--they are. Among the list of complaints from the 2004 campaign, the White House Correspondents Association has presented the press office with a gripe that hot food is laid on too often--at each stop on multiple-stop days--and at quite a cost. The White House reaction? Eat it.

"Other issues before the press office: Reporters want cheaper wireless Internet service, like the one provided by Sen. John Kerry 's campaign; they want to be able to carry luggage on Air Force One; they want more access to top Bushies; and they want the press office to let reporters linger longer to watch the president work rope lines. While the press office promises action, Hutcheson figures 'it's going to get worse before it gets better just because they won re-election.'"

Press Corps Watch, Part II

From Friday's press briefing:

"Q There is a report that nearly 6,000 people in the U.S. wind up in emergency rooms over the holidays because of decorating injuries. What specifically are you and the President doing to hang the holly and the mistletoe safely? (Laughter.) And have orders been issued that there is to be no dipping into the punch bowl while decorating? (Laughter.)

"MR. McCLELLAN: I would just say that we have great appreciation for all the staff and the volunteers who help put up the Christmas decorations and the holiday decorations that adorn the White House, and we appreciate all that they have done in that."

Inauguration Watch

Neely Tucker writes in The Washington Post: "President Bush and his administration tomorrow will announce the theme for the wartime inaugural events of this generation. Spokesman Steve Schmidt said in an interview last week that Bush would not have a 'dance in the end zone' type of celebration -- the inauguration would strike a dignified tone between celebrating a hard-won political victory, the continuation of the nation's democratic process and honoring the men and women serving in harm's way in Iraq and Afghanistan. . . .

"Still, an inauguration during a time of war, and before a deeply divided electorate, affords Bush a landmark opportunity to wrangle images and themes in his favor for a few precious days, presidential historians say, and hope that they echo into the coming years."

Timothy Dwyer and Maureen Fan write in The Washington Post: "A major component of President Bush's second inaugural celebration will be a Commander in Chief Ball to honor troops who have just returned from Afghanistan and Iraq or are about to be deployed, inaugural committee officials said yesterday. . . .

"The war has also given protesters a major reason to come to the inauguration."

Michael Janofsky writes in the New York Times: "For nearly a year, the Secret Service and other law enforcement agencies have been developing what they regard as the most comprehensive security plan ever devised for the inauguration of an American president."

Charles Lane and Michael Fletcher write in The Washington Post: "Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist, who has been absent from Supreme Court oral arguments in the past two months because of thyroid cancer, has accepted an invitation from President Bush to administer the oath of office on Jan. 20, a White House official said yesterday."

Art Watch

Howard O. Stier writes in the New York Times: "Artwork in an exhibition that drew thousands to the Chelsea Market for its opening last week was abruptly taken down over the weekend after the market's managers complained about a portrait of President Bush fashioned from tiny images of chimpanzees, according to the show's curator."

You can see the portrait -- "a small colorful painting by Christopher Savido that from afar appears to be a likeness of the president but viewed up close reveals chimps swimming in a marshy landscape" -- on Savido's Web site.

Froomkin Watch

Tomorrow's column will be my last until Jan. 10. I'm taking some time off. Happy holidays!

© 2004