Strategic Retreat

By Dan Froomkin
Special to washingtonpost.com
Thursday, October 27, 2005; 4:36 PM

Facing unprecedented and ferocious challenges on a variety of fronts, the White House is suddenly adopting a shocking new tactic: Full-out strategic retreat.

Today's withdrawal of Harriet Miers's bedeviled nomination to the Supreme Court is, of course, Exhibit A. But there's also an Exhibit B: The White House's quiet but total cave-in yesterday, reinstating the wage protections for workers involved in Hurricane Katrina reconstruction. (More on that below.)

Strategic retreat of course has two parts. One is retreat. The other is strategy.

For the moment, the Miers withdrawal has certainly taken Washington wonkery's attention away from the looming indictments in the CIA leak case, which are now widely expected to come down tomorrow.

But think it through, and it seems obvious that the Miers withdrawal was timed not to distract from the indictments, but rather to be quickly overshadowed by them.

As Candy Crowley suggested on CNN, if there are indeed indictments tomorrow, the Miers withdrawal will be quickly forgotten. That wipes the slate clean, more or less, and gives President Bush an opportunity to pivot away from the leak scandal with a new Supreme Court nomination sometime in the next week or two.

CNN's Jeff Greenfield also noted that the Miers withdrawal headlines in tomorrow's papers will be a nice gift to Bush's conservative base -- on the very day indictments presumably come down and Bush really needs his most ardent supporters firmly in his court.

I can't possibly keep up with all the Miers developments today. For that, a good first stop is Fred Barbash 's Supreme Court Blog on washingtonpost.com.

I should point out, however, that the White House's move today was both suggested and anticipated a week ago by Washington Post columnist Charles Krauthammer . I quoted Krauthammer in my Friday column and then asked: "Would a Friday night be best? Or a really big news day?"

Answer: The day before a really big news day.

Anyway, I will not be distracted. My focus remains on the CIA leak investigation.

Post-Indictment Strategy

As it happens, this morning's papers are full of interesting speculation about how the White House might respond to the expected indictments. It just needs a touch of updating.

Doyle McManus, Warren Vieth and Mary Curtius write in the Los Angeles Times: "The prosecutor hasn't announced any indictments, but President Bush's aides and their allies in Congress are working on strategies to counter the blow if White House officials are accused of crimes.

"The basic plan is familiar to anyone who has watched earlier presidents contend with scandal: Keep the problem at arm's length, let allies outside the White House do the talking, and try to change the subject to something -- anything -- else."

You mean, like a brand-new Supreme Court nomination, perhaps?

McManus, Vieth and Curtius continue: "The White House doesn't plan to attack Patrick J. Fitzgerald, the special prosecutor in the CIA leak investigation -- at least not directly, several GOP officials said. Instead, expect Bush to unveil a flurry of proposals on subjects from immigration and tax reform to Arab-Israeli peace talks.

" 'We've had discussions; we've gamed out different scenarios,' said one Republican strategist in frequent contact with the White House. 'But to try to put together a big binder with 18 different tabs is a fool's errand at this point. There are so many different ways this could play out.' . . .

" 'Let's say something happens in the next 48 hours,' said one official. 'It will dominate the news cycle until the 7th of November. Then a new cycle begins: Harriet will be the news.' "

Or maybe something even better: Harriet's replacement.

Tom Raum writes for the Associated Press: "Amid White House anxiety over the CIA leak investigation, President Bush is heading down a path well worn by other modern second-term presidents embroiled in scandals. He's avoiding confronting the unpleasantness publicly, contending he's too busy doing 'my job.'

"He may also be following other pages of the playbooks of Presidents Clinton, Reagan and Nixon: keep busy, shake up the staff, go abroad, give speeches on weighty topics. . . .

"Just like other embattled presidents, Bush has been a whirlwind of activity."

Julie Hirschfeld Davis writes in the Baltimore Sun: "President Bush ground his way through a packed and carefully choreographed schedule yesterday, keeping publicly focused on workaday duties amid anxious speculation about indictments of top administration aides in the CIA leak investigation. . . .

"The only thing conspicuously missing from Bush's day: any exchange with journalists. Reporters and photographers were quickly shepherded in and out of the Oval Office to observe the president's interactions with world leaders, but were left unfulfilled as they shouted questions about the leak inquiry."

Retreat Now, But Attack Soon?

On the premise that past is prologue, Howard Fineman writes in Newsweek: "The last time things looked this bleak politically for George W. Bush was in early 2000, the night he was blindsided by Sen. John McCain in the New Hampshire primary.

"At that moment, Bush came this close to blowing the Republican nomination. But instead of falling apart (as I had seen many another candidacy do in New Hampshire under similar circumstances), Bush and his team found their focus, unified their message and beat McCain later that spring by stealing his themes and savaging him personally--especially among Christian conservatives who form the base of the party."

Deborah Orin writes in the New York Post that some Republicans want the White House to fight back against the indictments.

" 'If anyone is indicted basically because of a battle between the CIA and the White House, we have to be ready to defend them and not just run and hide,' said House Homeland Security Committee chairman Rep. Pete King (R-L.I.)."

Meanwhile, at the Courthouse

Pete Yost writes for the Associated Press this morning on word from Fitzgerald spokesman Randall Samborn that there will be no public announcements before tomorrow, the day the grand jury's term expires.

Carol D. Leonnig and Jim VandeHei write in The Washington Post: "The prosecutor in the CIA leak investigation presented a summary of his case to a federal grand jury yesterday and is expected to announce a final decision on charges in the two-year-long probe tomorrow, according to people familiar with the case.

"Even as Special Counsel Patrick J. Fitzgerald wrapped up his case, the legal team of White House Deputy Chief of Staff Karl Rove has been engaged in a furious effort to convince the prosecutor that Rove did not commit perjury during the course of the investigation, according to people close to the aide. The sources, who indicated that the effort intensified in recent weeks, said Rove still did not know last night whether he would be indicted."

Fitzgerald "met with Chief U.S. District Judge Thomas F. Hogan in Hogan's private chambers for about 45 minutes. Hogan confirmed the two had met yesterday, but declined to discuss the substance of their conversation.

"One legal source said the two have met regularly to discuss practical matters about the case, which now include intense media interest and how to avoid improper leaks about secret grand jury matters."

And who are the grand jurors? "Like the jury's forewoman, the majority are African American women who appear to be middle-age or older. The jury includes at least two black men, two older white women and three white men. One trim, agile retiree with white hair often entered the grand jury room with his bicycle helmet in hand."

David Johnston and Richard W. Stevenson write in the New York Times: "The grand jury deliberations and the special prosecutor's meeting with the judge ratcheted up fears among officials that Mr. Fitzgerald might have obtained an indictment from the grand jury, and was requesting that it be sealed. He could also seek an extension of the grand jury's term, which expires on Friday."

Richard B. Schmitt writes in the Los Angeles Times: "Some lawyers close to the case speculated that Fitzgerald already may have secured at least one indictment, but was keeping it under seal until he was ready to announce the results of his 22-month investigation. . . .

"The sealing of indictments is an action generally confined to cases where defendants are considered flight risks, or where the government is seeking to use them as leverage to gain the cooperation of defendants -- especially in violent crime and drug cases.

"But lawyers close to the CIA leak case said that it would not be unusual for Fitzgerald to seal an indictment for a brief period to give notice to the people indicted, and to make arrangements for their surrender to authorities. It also would give the prosecutor the opportunity to simultaneously announce a series of indictments obtained at different times, they pointed out."

Anne Marie Squeo writes in the Wall Street Journal: "It is expected that any indictments will be very detailed and discuss the involvement of other White House officials who aren't being charged."

Thomas M. DeFrank, Kenneth R. Bazinet and James Gordon Meek write in the New York Daily News about suspicions that a plea bargain could be in the works for Rove.

The Think Progress blog caught Time reporter Mike Allen talking to Chris Matthews on MSNBC last night:

"MIKE ALLEN: A lot of activity happening that we're not seeing. A likely scenario for what happened today, Patrick Fitzgerald got some indictments from this grand jury. He is now able to go to the. . . .

"CHRIS MATTHEWS: You think they're sealed right now?

"MIKE ALLEN: Very possible. What I'm told is typically, in a case like this, he could get the indictments and now he can go to the targets and say, you can plead to these or I'll go back Friday and get more. You have 12 to 24 hours to think about it.

"CHRIS MATTHEWS: And he can give them a little Whitman Sampler of suggestions pleading to the charge of obstruction or perjury or. . . .

"MIKE ALLEN: I can add a bunch of counts. You can take a couple of counts or we can do a bunch more."

The Stories About the Story

Mark Leibovich writes in The Washington Post: "No story with so few facts has so thoroughly distracted Washington like the CIA leak story has this week. Yesterday was especially excruciating as we waited to hear if there would be indictments of people in the White House. . . .

" 'It's like one big 'West Wing' episode,' says Ron Bonjean, spokesman for House Speaker Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.). 'You have a lot of drama, high stakes, media's in a frenzy, staffers glued to the TV and hitting the refresh key on the Drudge Report.' He mentions secret plans and secret talking points that may or may not exist."

Tina Brown writes in her Washington Post column from New York: "Manhattan media circles have been so excited by Fitzgerald's silence right up to the eve of the grand jury's term tomorrow that they've forgotten his casting as a First Amendment assassin and turned him into a cross between Philip Marlowe and the Shadow: fearless, honest, independent, laconic and unstoppable."

Howard Kurtz writes in The Washington Post about how "virtually every bit of information, confirmed and alleged, comes from unnamed sources -- ironically, in an investigation of who anonymously outed a CIA operative -- who are trying to shape public understanding of a complicated narrative to someone's advantage."

Michael Scherer writes in Salon about the media scrum, Fitzgerald's own off-the-record statements ("I'm leaving," appears to have been one of them) and the boredom.

"To pass the time, reporters traded theories about what was going on. One cable news producer cradled a walkie-talkie and could be heard at one point saying to an associate at another position in or around the courthouse, 'Red dog, this is Grey Fox.' Another reporter, betraying some frustration, mused about her own profession, 'We sound like such losers, and that's because we are.' "

Meet Susan Ralston

Anne E. Kornblut writes in the New York Times: "At the nexus of two high-profile investigations roiling the nation's capital is an unlikely - and largely anonymous - figure known for fiercely safeguarding her bosses.

"Susan B. Ralston, 38, has worked as an assistant and side-by-side adviser to Karl Rove since 2001, helping manage his e-mail, meetings and phone calls from her perch near his office in the West Wing. That has made her an important witness in the C.I.A. leak investigation, as the special prosecutor has sought to determine whether Mr. Rove misled investigators about his contacts with reporters about Valerie Wilson, the undercover operative whose identity was made public in 2003.

"Ms. Ralston is also entangled in another political scandal: the case of Jack Abramoff, the Republican lobbyist, who employed her in the same frontline capacity during a stretch of time that is now under criminal investigation.

"Ms. Ralston is not considered a suspect in either case, and several close colleagues say it is by sheer accident that she has been swept up in both investigations."

Kornblut writes that Ralston was recently promoted and "functions as Mr. Rove's own chief of staff, coordinating the five groups within the West Wing that he oversees."

First a New Web Site -- Now a New Lease?

I broke the story on Friday about Fitzgerald's new Web site .

Now blogger Steve Clemons writes: "Fitzgerald's office is at 1400 New York Avenue, NW, 9th Floor in Washington.

"What I have learned is that the Office of the Special Counsel has signed a lease this week for expanded office space across the street at 1401 New York Avenue, NW.

"Another coincidence? More office space needed to shut down the operation?

"I think not. Fitzgerald's operation is expanding."

Rove Books

Lloyd Grove writes in the New York Daily News: "Rove biographers Jim Moore and Wayne Slater - who this week are rereleasing their groundbreaking study, 'Bush's Brain,' as a quickie paperback with a new title, 'Rove Exposed: How Bush's Brain Fooled America' - are feverishly at work on 'The Architect,' a brand-new Rove expos for Random House."

Briefing Follies

Here's the transcript of yesterday's press briefing:

"Q Scott, with what looks like indictments pending in the CIA leak investigation, what's the anxiety level like here at the White House? What's the atmosphere in the hallways?

"MR. McCLELLAN: Well, first of all, there's a lot of speculation going around, and I think there are a lot of facts that simply are not known at this point. . . .

"In terms of the White House, this White House is focused on the priorities of the American people. We're working on the priorities that the American people care about. The President has had a very busy day. . . .

"Q What's the anxiety level like as you wait through this process to see what's going to happen?

"MR. McCLELLAN: Well, we've got a lot of work to do, and so we don't have a lot of time to sit back and think about those things.

"Q So you're losing yourself in your work, is that what it is?"

What It Might Be Like In There

Former Clinton staffer Paul Begala writes in the TPMCafe blog: "To be sure, waiting on a decision to indict is an exquisite form of torture. But what lies ahead is worse. If special prosecutor Patrick Fitzgerald does choose to indict one or more senior Bush White House officials, they will be the first top White House aides to be indicted in a decade and a half.

"This is when a White House staffer earns his pay. The pressure of a federal criminal investigation - especially one in the media spotlight - is bone-crushing. My guess is that the strain is taking a gruesome toll. Already we hear rumors of President Bush exploding at his aides, at the President blaming Vice President Cheney, Karl Rove, and anyone else in sight for his woes.

"This I know first hand: when The Boss explodes like that, there are two kinds of aides -- those who fight and those who flee. When he came to Washington, Mr. Bush surrounded himself with tough-minded people who seemed not to be afraid to stand up to him. But now his team is loaded with weak-kneed toadies, and Mr. Bush is home alone."

The Davis-Bacon Turnaround

Griff Witte writes in The Washington Post: "The White House yesterday reversed course and reinstated a key wage protection for workers involved in Hurricane Katrina reconstruction, bowing to pressure from moderate House Republicans who argued that Gulf Coast residents were being left out of the recovery and that the region was becoming a magnet for illegal immigrants."

The wage waiver and measures that made it easier for the government to grant no-bid contracts were the first two concrete attempts by the White House to bake long-sought conservative goals into the Katrina recovery efforts. They have now both been rescinded.

Rep. George Miller (D-Calif.) writes in the TPMCafe blog that Bush had no choice. "I recently wrote on this site about an unprecedented Joint Resolution I introduced last week that would have forced a vote in Congress to overturn the President's wage cut. . . . With the support of every House Democrat and 37 House Republicans, we would have won that vote. Boxed in by that embarrassing scenario, the White House chose to reverse itself."

Economic Talk

Deb Riechmann writes for the Associated Press: "President Bush on Wednesday said he's willing to go along with congressional plans to make further cuts in the budget he submitted in February, saying he's open to making broad-based cuts in agency budgets."

Here's the transcript of his speech to the Economic Club of Washington.

He briefly mentioned Social Security although, as he himself put it: "They told me not to talk about it when I first got up here."

Bush and Vernon Jordan?

Bush had warm words for the Economic Club's president: Vernon Jordan. How weird is that?

Richard Wolffe and Holly Bailey write for Newsweek.com: "It's hard to avoid the feeling that Washington has reverted to a state of high scandal (known to defense lawyers as 'serious legal jeopardy'). But it's even harder to avoid that feeling when you see Vernon Jordan introducing the president at a lunchtime event in downtown D.C. The man who played such a central role in L'affaire Lewinsky hosted Bush at an economic pep talk for business execs at a Washington hotel on Wednesday."

They add: "Either Bush was being exceedingly gracious, or his jokemeisters missed Jordan's appearance with one John Kerry last summer. At that time, Jordan was a lot less gracious about Bush at a meeting of the National Urban League. Jordan said he'd worked around several presidents over the course of his long career in public life, and he could draw just one conclusion about George W. Bush. 'I have been around long enough to know a failed presidency when I see one,' he said."

Blogger Humor

Blogger Brad DeLong , writes in one of his signature faux Socratic dialogues:

"Thrasymakhos: . . . [M]y not-understanding is at a very elevated and sophisticated level.

"Glaukon: Do tell: what do you not understand? . . .

"Thrasymakhos: The pointless, boastful lying in the fall of 2003. Cheney: 'I don't even know who Joe Wilson is!' Bush: 'Gee. I really hope they catch those leakers!' When all the while both of them knew that Cheney had launched the leaking campaign and that Rove, Libby, and company were in it up to their necks. It didn't gain them anything. And now it makes them look like the sleazy liars that they are -- and makes them look so in a soundbite simple enough for the media to understand it. That I really don't understand.

"Glaukon: You don't have much experience with fratboys, do you?"

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