Bush on a Roll?

By Dan Froomkin
Special to washingtonpost.com
Friday, July 29, 2005; 11:57 AM

August is just around the bend and while it's a notoriously slow time for news in Washington, it's hot times for presidential prognostication.

So after the dust settles from this busy week and the assessments start to pour in, how will President Bush measure up?

Will the defining moment turn out to be his putting down of a Republican rebellion against a small trade pact? Or will it be the defiance of the Senate majority leader on the urgent and divisive issue of stem cell research?

When evaluating progress on Bush's domestic agenda, will the focus be on his success in pushing through pork-filled energy and highway bills? Or on his failure to achieve his top legislative priorities -- including the transformation of Social Security and the tax code?

On the foreign policy front, will his rebranding of the war on terror and talk of possible troop pullouts buy him some good will? Or will the continued violence in Iraq, the renewed threat from al Qaeda, and the controversy over the treatment of detainees still plague him?

Will his decision to nominate John G. Roberts Jr. for the Supreme Court still be seen as a master stroke once Roberts's potentially outside-the-mainstream views on civil rights are more fully fleshed out?

And when the next shoe drops on the CIA leak case, how big of a shoe will it be? And upon whom will it drop?

Well, as Bush's luck would have it, the news business is by nature a creature of the moment. And we tend to pay more attention to what just happened than what didn't happen.

So it's anyone's guess, really, how things will play out in the press.

As for this morning, there's a lot of talk about how things are suddenly looking up for the president.

Looking Up

Richard W. Stevenson writes in the New York Times: "His problems remain many, and include the relentless violence in Iraq, the leak investigation that has ensnared some of his top aides and poll numbers that suggest substantial dissatisfaction with both his foreign and domestic policies. But President Bush has still had a pretty good July, showing how his own doggedness and a Republican majority in Congress have consistently allowed him to push his agenda forward even when the political winds are in his face. . . .

"The president's record over the past few weeks, combined with generally good economic news and word that the budget deficit is shrinking, suggests that Mr. Bush has hardly lapsed into the lame-duck status that Democrats had been hoping to assign him.

"It also highlights yet again the importance of the time and effort he has put into helping retain the Republican majorities in the House and Senate, which for all their fractiousness tend to come through for him at the big moments. As he often does, Mr. Bush relied heavily on his party's leaders on Capitol Hill to make the deals necessary to achieve his broad legislative goals."

Tom Raum writes for the Associated Press: "After a rocky start, President Bush is scoring legislative wins that could be important tests of his ability to push laws through Congress in his second term. . . .

"With Washington summer vacations looming, Bush and his Republican allies on Capitol Hill were encouraged on Thursday that a few things were finally going their way -- a welcome break from unrelenting bad news from Iraq and the firestorm over whether Bush aide Karl Rove helped disclose a CIA officer's identity for political purposes."

And Gail Russell Chaddock writes in the Christian Science Monitor: "After months of slumping poll numbers, President Bush is ending the critical summer session of Congress with big wins on issues ranging from a highly controversial trade pact to long-stalled energy and highway bills.

"Perhaps more important, his nominee for a vacant Supreme Court seat appears to be headed for a less-toxic confirmation process than analysts had expected.

"In Iraq, top commanders have raised the prospect of significant numbers of US troops returning home next year.

" 'It's a pretty good week for the president,' says James Thurber, a political scientist at American University in Washington."

Finger Watch

There was much Internet speculation yesterday about precisely which presidential digit was thrust in the direction of the press corps on Wednesday. See my "finger watch" in yesterday's column for some links.

The theory that it might be a "finger of hostility" -- as Cox News Service reporter Ken Herman so jocularly put it in a question to spokesman Scott McClellan at the daily briefing -- actually gained currency after McClellan's initial non-denial denial.

Here's that exchange:

"Q Scott, last night on the Tonight Show, Jay Leno, who apparently is subbing for Johnnie, displayed a video of the President at the Capitol yesterday. In that video, the President walking away from the press lifts his hand and raises a finger. Mr. Leno interpreted it as, shall we say, a finger of hostility. Each of our fingers has a special purpose and meaning in life. (Laughter.) Can you tell us what finger it was he held up?

"MR. McCLELLAN: Ken, I'm not even going to dignify that with much of a response. But if someone is misportraying something, that's unfortunate.

"Q Well, it was not a finger of hostility?

"MR. McCLELLAN: Ken, I was there with him, and I'm just not going to -- I'm not going to dignify that with a response. I mean, I haven't seen the video that you're talking about, but I know the way the President acts. And if someone is misportraying it, that's unfortunate."

Later in the day, however, the answer was in fact dignified with an off-camera and not-for-attribution response to the press corps. It was, the White House insisted, Bush's thumb.

Interestingly, blogger John Aravosis got that same answer -- but on the record -- from David Almacy, who handles press relations with the Internet community.

Peter Baker writes in The Washington Post about why the alternative explanation was not entirely unthinkable: "Certainly Bush does not always have charitable thoughts about journalists, and the video clip quickly made its way onto various Web sites. It was played around Washington yesterday as the curious tried to discern for themselves which presidential digit was raised. The speculation recalled last year's still-unresolved controversy over a hump that seemed to be under Bush's suit coat at one of the campaign debates."

And then of course there was that time Vice President Cheney ran into Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) on the Senate floor.

Bolton Watch

William Douglas and James Kuhnhenn write for Knight Ridder Newspapers: "President Bush is expected to sidestep Congress and appoint John Bolton, his controversial choice for United Nations ambassador, to the job temporarily because opponents have blocked his confirmation by the Senate, several lawmakers and influential conservatives said Thursday.

"Bush is poised to make the hawkish, tough-talking Bolton a recess appointment under a constitutional provision that allows the president to fill a vacancy during a Senate recess. Congress is expected to adjourn for August vacation Saturday or Sunday.

"Administration officials wouldn't discuss Bush's intentions Thursday, but several senators and conservatives close to the White House think the president will tap Bolton shortly after Congress goes home."

Or, as Al Kamen puts it in The Washington Post: "Increasing chatter of late has it that Bolton most likely will be ordering room service in his ambassadorial suite in the Waldorf by Monday as a recess appointee."

This in spite of a new disclosure.

Elisabeth Bumiller writes in the New York Times: "John R. Bolton, President Bush's nominee to be ambassador to the United Nations, failed to tell the Senate during his confirmation hearings that he had been interviewed by the State Department's inspector general looking into how American intelligence agencies came to rely on fabricated reports that Iraq had tried to buy uranium from Africa, the State Department said Thursday.

"Reacting to a letter from Senator Joseph R. Biden Jr. of Delaware, the ranking Democrat on the Foreign Relations Committee, Sean McCormack, the State Department spokesman, said Mr. Bolton had not disclosed the interview with the inspector general because Mr. Bolton had forgotten about it."

Mark Sherman writes for the Associated Press: "Democratic senators said the admission should forestall Bush from using his authority to give Bolton a temporary appointment to the U.N. post, without Senate confirmation, when the Senate goes on vacation in August."

Roberts Watch

Maura Reynolds writes in the Los Angeles Times: "Democrats are preparing to send the White House a request for documents from fewer than 20 of more than 300 cases in which Supreme Court nominee John G. Roberts Jr. played a role during his time as a political appointee in the administration of George H.W. Bush, a key senator said Thursday.

"The request, expected to be delivered as soon as today, will be 'limited and targeted,' focusing on Roberts' work on constitutional issues, senior Senate Judiciary Committee member Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass.) told reporters."

David D. Kirkpatrick writes in the New York Times: "The request escalates the conflict over the documents from hypothetical to concrete. In response to preliminary inquiries from Democrats, White House officials earlier this week released many thousands of pages from Mr. Roberts's work as a lawyer in the Reagan administration. But the White House said it would not provide access to his work as deputy solicitor general under the first President Bush, describing the content of the papers as confidential legal advice."

David G. Savage writes in the Los Angeles Times: "The White House is citing the attorney-client privilege as the basis for refusing to reveal memos written by Supreme Court nominee John G. Roberts Jr. when he was representing the government before the high court. At the time, Roberts was the top deputy to Solicitor Gen. Kenneth W. Starr.

"But it is not clear that this legal privilege shields the work of government lawyers from the eyes of government investigators -- thanks to a legal ruling won by Starr himself, when he was independent counsel investigating President Clinton."

Federalist Watch

Michael A. Fletcher writes in The Washington Post about a Washington mystery: Why an administration unapologetically awash in members of the Federalist Society so vigorously disputed that its Supreme Court pick was a member.

"The eagerness of the White House to distance Roberts from the Federalist Society baffled many conservatives. They believe the reaction fed a false perception that membership in the organization -- an important pillar of the conservative legal movement -- was something nefarious that would damage Roberts's chances of confirmation. . . .

"The group claims more than 35,000 members, an increasing number of whom work in the highest councils of the federal government. Many Justice Department lawyers, White House attorneys, Supreme Court clerks and judges are affiliated with the group."

The Rove Dilemma

Ron Hutcheson writes for Knight Ridder Newspapers about Bush's long friendship with his political guru, Karl Rove.

"Now their friendship is being tested by Rove's involvement in the unauthorized outing of an undercover CIA officer. Depending on the outcome of a grand jury investigation, the president soon could face a painful choice between protecting his trusted aide or forcing his resignation to limit political damage."

Lightly Grilled

There's a definite lull in the leak-related grilling of Scott McClellan.

Here's the text of yesterday's briefing. The one leak-related exchange:

"Q I wonder if you can help me understand something from earlier this week. When Alberto Gonzales went on the Sunday shows and was asked about the leak investigation and said that he told Andy Card 12 hours before the rest of the staff was told, we asked you about that, being an ongoing investigation, you told us that he wasn't saying anything new that hadn't been said on the podium in October 2003. And yet, when we've asked you about statements that you made in the podium in 2003, rather than affirming those statements, something that it seems like Gonzales might have done, you've just said that you can't comment on an ongoing investigation. So there seems to be a difference here. He's willing to restate something that happened, or that he said, but you're not.

"MR. McCLELLAN: We already addressed this the other day. There's nothing else to add to it.

"Go ahead."

The Understory

Laurie P. Cohen, Joe Hagan and Anne Marie Squeo write in the Wall Street Journal about how Time magazine reporter Matthew Cooper and New York Times reporter Judith Miller went their separate ways.

Fitzgerald's Future

In yesterday's Chicago Tribune, John Chase recounted former senator Peter Fitzgerald's assertion that there is mounting political pressure to oppose the reappointment of U.S. Attorney Patrick J. Fitzgerald this fall.

But Lynn Sweet writes in the Chicago Sun-Times today that Fitzgerald's job is safe.

"Though his term is up this fall, U.S. Attorney Patrick Fitzgerald, the aggressive prosecutor who is investigating Mayor Daley's City Hall, possible illegal White House leaks and who has a former Illinois governor awaiting a corruption trial, is in no danger of losing his job.

"House Speaker J. Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.) was asked about Peter Fitzgerald's concerns Thursday . 'I know there [have] been innuendos about my getting pressures. I can tell you nobody has talked to me or called me about this. Anybody. Period,' Hastert said. . . .

"Legally, if President Bush does nothing, he stays on the job even though his term is over. Politically, Bush would face a storm of protest if he fired a man who is investigating his own administration."

But Whom Will Fitzgerald Report To?

John Harwood (subscription required) raises a fascinating issue in his Washington Wire column in the Wall Street Journal: "Imminent departure of Deputy Attorney General [James] Comey, who appointed CIA leak prosecutor Fitzgerald, would create a vacuum, since [Attorney General Alberto] Gonzales is recused because of previous White House counsel service. Arriving deputy [Timothy E.] Flanigan, who also worked in counsel's office, may have similar problem, while third-in-command [Associate Attorney General Robert D.] McCallum [Jr.] is Yale friend of Bush. Comey plans to give the responsibility to career Justice attorney, though the only control Fitzgerald's Justice handler has is to fire him."

DAG Watch

As for Flanigan, Walter F. Roche Jr. writes in the Los Angeles Times: "The Bush administration's pick for deputy U.S. attorney general supervised a lobbying campaign two years ago by controversial lobbyist Jack Abramoff to block legislation aimed at offshore companies escaping American taxes, records and interviews show."

Ambassadorships at a Price

Richard Wolffe and Holly Bailey write in Newsweek.com about Bush's picks for senior embassy postings. For instance, there's the new German ambassador-to-be, William Timken Jr., an Ohio industrialist who doesn't speak German and "has no obvious qualifications or abilities to repair the deeply strained relationship with one of America's most important allies for the last 50 years."

But he did raise at least $200,000 for the president's reelection campaign in 2004 -- "ranking him among the elite class of fund-raisers known as the Bush Rangers. . . .

"Timken is the eighth $100,000-plus Bush fund-raiser to be nominated for an ambassadorship since January. On Wednesday, the White House nominated Al Hoffman, a Florida developer who has raised $300,000 for Bush's presidential campaigns, to be ambassador to Portugal. Last month, Bush appointed Robert Tuttle, a California car dealer, to be ambassador to the United Kingdom, while Ronald Spogli, a California financer who was Bush's classmate at Harvard Business School, was named the top diplomat in Rome. Both men were Bush Pioneers in 2004 -- having raised at least $100,000 for the campaign. In April, the White House named David Wilkins, a South Carolina state representative who raised $200,000 for the 2004 campaign, as the ambassador to Canada. That appointment raised concerns north of the border when Wilkins admitted that he'd only visited Canada once--more than 30 years ago on a trip to Niagara Falls--and that he didn't speak French (Canada is officially a bilingual country)."

Kirstin Downey has even fresher ambassador news in The Washington Post: "On the same day that the White House announced that President Bush is nominating California billionaire Roland E. Arnall to be ambassador to the Netherlands, the company he controls said it would set aside $325 million for a possible settlement of allegations of predatory lending tactics."

The Stem Cell Break

H. Josef Hebert writes for the Associated Press about Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist's decision to break with Bush and support legislation to expand federal financing for embryonic stem cell research that he says would "bridge the moral and ethical differences" on the divisive issue.

CAFTA Epilogue

Warren Vieth writes for the Los Angeles Times: "Rep. Robert B. Aderholt's cellphone rang Wednesday as the Alabama Republican was standing in the House gallery with some constituents.

"The caller was President Bush. . . .

" 'I have some real concerns about the way CAFTA would treat my district, and I have some things that really need to be worked out before I can vote for it,' Aderholt said he told the president. . . .

"By the end of the day, Aderholt had in hand a letter signed by Commerce Secretary Carlos M. Gutierrez and U.S. Trade Representative Rob Portman, promising a series of steps to protect sock manufacturers and poultry producers in Aderholt's northern Alabama district.

"The late bargaining for votes in support of CAFTA angered critics, who said Thursday that they considered the deal-making unseemly."

Froomkin Watch

I'm taking Monday off. So no column until Tuesday. See you then.

Late Night Humor

On the Daily Show with Jon Stewart, correspondent Stephen Colbert reports: "Finally the phrase 'war on terror' is over, and we can all get on with our lives."

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