What Did the President Know?

By Dan Froomkin
Special to washingtonpost.com
Monday, July 25, 2005; 1:30 PM

Now that special prosecutor Patrick J. Fitzgerald is said to have expanded his investigation into the leak of a CIA agent's identity to encompass a possible White House coverup, what the president and the vice president knew would appear to be much more relevant.

Fitzgerald interviewed both President Bush and Vice President Cheney more than a year ago, at what seemed at the time like the tail end of his investigation into the leak of CIA agent Valerie Plame's identity.

Bush and Cheney were not placed under oath -- the reasoning apparently being that they had no direct involvement in the potential criminal activity under investigation: the leak itself. We don't know much about either interview, beyond the fact that Bush had his personal attorney at his side.

But now Fitzgerald's investigation appears to have turned its focus to discrepancies in the testimony of White House senior adviser Karl Rove and vice presidential chief of staff I. Lewis "Scooter" Libby. Fitzgerald may be trying to determine whether evidence exists to bring perjury or obstruction of justice charges.

And that raises the issue of what -- if anything -- Rove and Libby told Bush and Cheney about their roles.

So does that mean Fitzgerald might call Bush and Cheney to testify before the grand jury -- under oath? Might he even have done so already? We have no idea, of course, because the White House isn't saying anything at all about the investigation anymore.

Either way, the CIA leak story is taking on more and more of the trappings of the classic Washington political scandal -- the saving grace for Bush being that his party controls Congress, and that thus far, Republicans have closed ranks behind him.

But get ready for more and more talk about the parallels between this story and the Clinton intern scandal -- and of course, Watergate.

We're already hearing some of the prototypical questions being raised. Here's former presidential adviser David Gergen, on ABC's "This Week" yesterday: "What did the president know and when did he know it?"

The President in the Box

Richard W. Stevenson writes in the Sunday New York Times: "His former secretary of state, most of his closest aides and a parade of other senior officials have testified to a grand jury. His political strategist has emerged as a central figure in the case, as has his vice president's chief of staff. His spokesman has taken a pounding for making public statements about the matter that now appear not to be accurate.

"For all that, it is still not clear what the investigation into the leak of a C.I.A. operative's identity will mean for President Bush. So far the disclosures about the involvement of Karl Rove, among others, have not exacted any substantial political price from the administration. And nobody has suggested that the investigation directly implicates the president.

"Yet Mr. Bush has yet to address some uncomfortable questions that he may not be able to evade indefinitely."

Stevenson writes that Bush has several times said he didn't know who might have been responsible for the leak.

"But Mr. Bush's political opponents say the president is in a box. In their view, either Mr. Rove and Mr. Libby kept the president in the dark about their actions, making them appear evasive at a time when Mr. Bush was demanding that his staff cooperate fully with the investigation, or Mr. Rove and Mr. Libby had told the president and he was not forthcoming in his public statements about his knowledge of their roles."

Flashback I: Bush and Cheney Get Interviewed

Bush was interviewed by prosecutors for more than an hour on June 24, 2004.

Susan Schmidt wrote in The Washington Post at the time: "Special prosecutor Patrick J. Fitzgerald and several assistants questioned the president for about 70 minutes in the Oval Office yesterday morning. A White House spokesman declined to comment on the substance of the interview but said Bush, who was accompanied by a private lawyer, was not placed under oath."

Cheney was interviewed a few weeks prior to that, though details were even sketchier. David Johnston wrote in the New York Times at the time: "Vice President Dick Cheney was recently interviewed by federal prosecutors who asked whether he knew of anyone at the White House who had improperly disclosed the identity of an undercover C.I.A. officer, people who have been involved in official discussions about the case said on Friday. . . .

"It is not clear when or where Mr. Cheney was interviewed, but he was not questioned under oath and he has not been asked to appear before the grand jury, people officially informed about the case said."

Flashback II: The Gonzales Tip

On the evening of Sept. 29, 2003, then-White House counsel Alberto Gonzales gave White House Chief of Staff Andrew H. Card Jr. a 12-hour head start before he officially notified the rest of the White House staff the next morning that the Justice Department had just opened a criminal investigation into the CIA leak -- and that as a result, all relevant records should be preserved.

That is not exactly news.

For the record: White House spokesman Scott McClellan described precisely this sequence of events to the press corps in his Oct. 1, 2003 briefing.

Some Democrats immediately and publicly asked if that delay resulted in the destruction of evidence, and in a letter to Bush a few days later, four Democratic senators asked why the Justice Department allowed Gonzales such a grace period.

McClellan announced that it was "silly" to suggest that the delay indicated that Justice wanted to shield the White House in any way.

Don't remember any of that? Not your fault. It didn't get much ink.

But it's getting a lot of attention today. Why? Possibly because press coverage of the Bush administration, in the first term, failed to sufficiently heed some developments that, in retrospect, seem worthy of more attention.

Something similar happened when the Downing Street Memo first came to light in May. That memo suggested among other things that Bush was already set on invading Iraq long before acknowledging as much in public. In that case, it took the American mainstream press more than a month to acknowledge that it was a story worth writing about again, even though it was, technically, old news.

The Gonzales Tip Reemerges

The Gonzales story came back to life yesterday morning, with Frank Rich speculating in his New York Times op-ed column about why Bush didn't pick Gonzales for the Supreme Court.

"As White House counsel, he was the one first notified that the Justice Department, at the request of the C.I.A., had opened an investigation into the outing of Joseph Wilson's wife. That notification came at 8:30 p.m. on Sept. 29, 2003, but it took Mr. Gonzales 12 more hours to inform the White House staff that it must 'preserve all materials' relevant to the investigation. . . .

"A new Gonzales confirmation process now would have quickly devolved into a neo-Watergate hearing. Mr. Gonzales was in the thick of the Plame investigation, all told, for 16 months."

On CBS's "Face the Nation" yesterday, Bob Schieffer asked Gonzales about the sequence of events. Here's the transcript.

"SCHIEFFER: Well, let me just ask you the obvious question, Mr. Attorney General. Did you tell anybody at the White House, 'Get ready for this, here it comes'?

"Mr. GONZALES: I told one person in the White House that -- of the notification and...


"Mr. GONZALES: ...then immediately -- I told the chief of staff. And then immediately the next morning, I told the president. And shortly thereafter, there was a notification sent out to all the members of the White House staff."

As Dafna Linzer writes in The Washington Post: "Sen. Joseph R. Biden Jr. (D-Del.), appearing on the same program, questioned why Gonzales would not have notified the staff immediately by e-mail and suggested that Fitzgerald pursue whether Card may have given anyone in the White House advance notice of the criminal investigation.

" 'The real question now is, who did the chief of staff speak to? Did the chief of staff pick up the phone and call Karl Rove? Did the chief of staff pick up the phone and call anybody else?' Biden asked."

How the Investigation Has Changed

Carol D. Leonnig and Jim VandeHei write in The Washington Post: "Initially, Fitzgerald appeared focused on the theory that Libby had leaked Plame's identity, according to lawyers involved in the case. He had interviewed three other reporters about their conversations with Libby, but all three indicated he either did not discuss Plame or did not reveal her identity."

More recently, however: "The prosecutors have appeared keen to see if they can fill in some gaps in Rove's memory about how he learned about Plame, and they have repeatedly asked witnesses if Rove told them how he knew about Plame. Rove testified early in the investigation that his information about Plame came from Novak, his attorney said. Rove testified he also may have heard about her from another reporter or administration official who had heard it from a reporter, but he could not recall the second source of his information, his attorney said."

Douglas Frantz, Sonni Efron and Richard B. Schmitt write in the Los Angeles Times: "The special prosecutor in the CIA leak investigation has shifted his focus from determining whether White House officials violated a law against exposing undercover agents to determining whether evidence exists to bring perjury or obstruction of justice charges, according to people briefed in recent days on the inquiry's status."

Where We Stand

Scott Shane reminds readers of the New York Times about how the story unfolded and provides some context: "Ten weeks had passed since Mr. Bush's speech aboard an aircraft carrier, before a banner declaring 'Mission Accomplished.' And the president was being criticized by Democrats as taunting Iraqi insurgents a few days earlier by using the phrase 'Bring 'em on.' Behind the scenes, the Central Intelligence Agency and the National Security Council were skirmishing over who would take the blame for inaccurate intelligence."

John D. McKinnon, Christopher Cooper and Anne Marie Squeo write in the Wall Street Journal: "Questions about the outcome of a federal probe into the leaking of a CIA agent's identity could linger into the fall, creating a long stretch of uncertainty for President Bush and his team on a sensitive topic.

"There is no sign Mr. Bush himself has sustained much damage yet, and thus far, the complications for the White House aren't great. But Democrats are sure to try to use the time to sow doubts about the president's team and erode his public support, already damaged by the conflict in Iraq and high gasoline prices."

Left and Right Blogosphere Check

From the left, the attack: Americablog's John Aravosis writes: "McClellan said two years ago that Bush 'knows' that Karl Rove wasn't involved in the leak. That means that Bush either relied on McClellan's public statements that Rove had told McClellan he wasn't involved, and Rove lied, or that Bush talked to Rove and Rove lied to the president as well, or that Bush knew the truth and permitted his staff to lie. In the best case scenario for Bush, Rove lied to White House staff about the scandal and let them go public with that lie. How does the president tolerate this?"

From the right, the defense: Andy McCarthy in National Review Online's Corner: "There is no credible suggestion at this point that President Bush is EVADING anything. He encouraged the investigation, he made statements about taking action against wrongdoers, and he has repeatedly said he wants the independent counsel to press ahead because he wants to know what happened. He has also sat for an interview himself and encouraged everyone in his administration to be cooperative."

Legacy of Watergate

Washington Post reporter Walter Pincus spoke with CNN's Lou Dobbs on Friday.

Dobbs asked about the frustration expressed by a Bush critic: "Do you believe that there is a basis for his frustration with how long it's taken for the White House to act?"

Pincus replied: "Well, I think there always is. It's one of these cases where something goes on in the White House and the president either knows about it or doesn't know about it.

"And what's really happened since Watergate is once there's sort of a sniff of a scandal, everybody closes down. You don't really have an internal investigation, because whoever does the investigation can be called up to Congress or called into a grand jury, as in the case here. So people just sit by and wait. The president said he wants people to come forward. And we'll see. And we now have to wait for a very careful prosecutor to finish his investigation."

Bush's America

USA Today's Judy Keen assesses Bush's tenure based on how things are going in Lexington, Ky.

"The changes that have occurred here mirror the effects of Bush's tenure in communities everywhere," she said. So what is Bush's imprint?

"His impact is evident in Bill Langley's living room, where there's a shrine to the son who died in Iraq.

"It's in the sagging public-housing projects whose redevelopment was recently delayed by the rejection of a $20 million federal grant request.

"Money from his budget will soon be used to help clean up a stagnant pond at Gainesway Park so kids in a low-income neighborhood can get fishing lessons from senior citizens.

"Police cruisers have new computers thanks to homeland security funds, but community development director Paula King has seen four years of 'decreases in federal funding for social service programs . . . and really stiff competition' for everything else."

Thom Shanker writes in the New York Times: "The Bush administration's rallying call that America is a nation at war is increasingly ringing hollow to men and women in uniform, who argue in frustration that America is not a nation at war, but a nation with only its military at war."

Cheney and the Treatment of Detainees

Josh White and R. Jeffrey Smith write in The Washington Post that the Bush administration is "lobbying to block legislation supported by Republican senators that would bar the U.S. military from engaging in 'cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment' of detainees, from hiding prisoners from the Red Cross, and from using interrogation methods not authorized by a new Army field manual."

The chief lobbyist? "Vice President Cheney met Thursday evening with three senior Republican members of the Senate Armed Services Committee to press the administration's case that legislation on these matters would usurp the president's authority and -- in the words of a White House official -- interfere with his ability 'to protect Americans effectively from terrorist attack.'"

Mother and Son Reunion

Jim VandeHei writes in The Washington Post: "President Bush and his 80-year-old mother implored low-income seniors Friday to sign up for the new Medicare prescription drug plan and renewed the White House campaign to restructure Social Security."

David E. Rosenbaum writes in the New York Times: "Speaking to several hundred carefully screened supporters, Mr. Bush made essentially the same points he has been making for months. . . .

"The new twist this time was that he was accompanied by his mother, Barbara, who turned 80 last month and whom he described as his favorite senior citizen.

" 'I'm here because I'm worried about our 17 grandchildren, and so is my husband,' Mrs. Bush said. 'They will get no Social Security.' "

Rosenbaum quoted that statement without comment, a far cry from Jennifer Loven of the Associated Press, who was there when Mrs. Bush first used that line in March. Loven at the time called Mrs. Bush's appearance a gimmick: "After all, the grandchildren in the wealthy Bush family are unlikely to depend on Social Security in their sunset years and the monthly Social Security check collected by Mrs. Bush's husband, the former President Bush, is undoubtedly only a minuscule portion of their retirement income."

The Path to the Supreme Court Nomination

Peter Baker writes in The Washington Post: "Much of Bush's selection process remains opaque, guarded jealously by aides who refuse to disclose many details even now that it is over. But interviews with dozens of administration officials, outside White House advisers, Republican strategists and others close to the process peel back at least some of the shroud and reveal a process that took several unexpected twists and turns for a White House that prides itself on order and discipline."

Among the delicious details: Cheney interviewed all of the finalists. And: "At a black-tie dinner for the visiting prime minister of India in the White House State Dining Room [the night before Judge John G. Roberts Jr.'s nomination was announced], Card ran into Justice Clarence Thomas. 'You're going to love who the president picks,' Card assured him."

Charles Lane writes in The Washington Post, "Last week, the White House told news organizations that had reported [Roberts's] membership in the [Federalist Society] that he had no memory of belonging." But now it turns out that Roberts's name appears in the influential, conservative legal organization's 1997-1998 leadership directory.

Rick Klein writes in the Boston Globe: "The White House signaled yesterday that it does not intend to release documents produced by Supreme Court nominee John G. Roberts Jr. during his service in the Reagan and George H. W. Bush administrations, setting up a clash with Democrats who are insisting that internal memos prepared by Roberts be released for lawmakers to review."

Timothy Noah asks on Slate: "What belittling nickname will President Bush give his new Supreme Court nominee?" Noah's taking nominations.

The Administration and the Fury

Emily Wagster Pettus writes for the Associated Press: "A scathing parody that likens President Bush to the 'idiot' in William Faulkner's novel 'The Sound and the Fury' has won this year's Faulkner write-alike contest -- and touched off a literary spat.

"Organizers of the Faux Faulkner competition are accusing Hemispheres, the United Airlines magazine that has sponsored the contest for six years, of playing politics by not putting Sam Apple's 'The Administration and the Fury' in its print edition -- only on its Web site. . . .

"The story portrays President Bush in the role of Benjy, the mentally challenged son -- or, as Faulkner himself said, the 'idiot' -- in his 1929 novel about the wreckage of a Southern family."

Here's the parody, as published in Slate in February, and in which Cheney, Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld and Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice prepare Bush for a news conference.

An excerpt:

" 'Go and get him Saddam's gun,' Condi said. 'You know how he likes to hold it.'

"Dick went to my desk drawer and took out Saddam s gun. He gave it to me, and it was hot in my hands. Rummy pulled the gun away.

" 'Do you want him carrying a gun into the press conference?' Rummy said. " 'Can't you think any better than he can?' "


So was the Roberts nomination moved up in an attempt to distract from the CIA leak scandal? And did it fail?

Howard Kurtz asked the National Review's Byron York for his thoughts.

York: "Just shows you the president's brilliance, that Roberts is not taking the heat off Rove; Rove is taking the heat off Roberts. And now we don't have the Supreme Court controversy which we thought we were going to have."

Angry Bush Jokes

Matt Alexander puts forth some new Bush jokes in McSweeney's -- although he acknowledges that some of them "seem gratuitous and mean-spirited."

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