The White House Stonewall

By Dan Froomkin
Special to washingtonpost.com
Tuesday, November 1, 2005; 2:40 PM

The indictment of Scooter Libby on Friday was not just an embarrassment for the White House -- it also raised serious questions about the way President Bush's inner circle does business.

But rather than addressing any of these questions, Bush and his aides are stonewalling. Rather than taking steps to rebuild their credibility, they are trying to change the subject. Rather than apologize, they are refusing to admit anything is wrong.

And yet something is wrong. Their credibility is damaged. And the questions won't go away.

Consider if this was happening anywhere else. If you ran a company, for instance, and one of your top officers was indicted by a federal grand jury, would you just act like it hadn't happened? Not if you wanted your company to survive.

Bush, in his brief statement about the indictment on Friday, said the "ongoing legal proceedings are serious," but that "each individual is presumed innocent and entitled to due process and a fair trial." He said the news made him sad.

Vice President Cheney, in his statement , was even more combative: "Mr. Libby has informed me that he is resigning to fight the charges brought against him. I have accepted his decision with deep regret," he said. Cheney also cited the presumption of innocence, and concluded: "Because this is a pending legal proceeding, in fairness to all those involved, it would be inappropriate for me to comment on the charges or on any facts relating to the proceeding."

White House spokesman Scott McClellan has repeatedly refused to answer any questions on the topic -- citing the presumption of innocence and the ongoing investigation.

But the presumption of innocence hasn't stopped White House officials from talking about indictments before -- for instance when it comes to suspected terrorists.

And answering some basic questions about who knew what when will not in any way hinder an investigation that, by all accounts, is very nearly complete.

Kristof and Dionne

Columnist Nicholas D. Kristof writes in the New York Times (subscription required): "Come on, Mr. Vice President, tell us what happened.

"A federal indictment charges that criminality swirled around your office, and it demeans this administration and the entire country when you hide in your bunker and refuse to say whether you knew of any such activities.

"Five lawyers I've consulted all agree that there is no compelling legal reason why you should not discuss the situation. It's urgent that you clear the air. . . .

"If you had nothing to do with any of this, then say so. But don't cower behind your lawyers. As it is, you're pleading 'no contest' in the court of public opinion, and that's painful for all of us who want to believe in the integrity of our government."

Columnist E. J. Dionne Jr. writes in The Washington Post: "Bush needs to tell the public -- yes, the old phrase still applies -- what he knew about the operation to discredit Wilson and when he knew it. And he shouldn't hide behind those 'legalisms' that Republicans were so eager to condemn in the Clinton years.

"The obligation to come clean applies, big-time, to Cheney, who appears at several critical points in the saga detailed in the Fitzgerald indictment. What exactly transpired in the meetings between Libby and Cheney on the Wilson case? It is inconceivable that an aide as careful and loyal as Libby was a rogue official. Did Cheney set these events in motion? This is a question about good government at least as much as it is a legal matter."

Courtroom Fight Coming?

Jim VandeHei and Carol D. Leonnig write in The Washington Post: "Vice President Cheney's former chief of staff, I. Lewis "Scooter" Libby, is expected to plead not guilty to charges that he lied and obstructed justice in the CIA leak probe when he is arraigned Thursday, setting the stage for a possible courtroom fight in which Libby's interests could collide with those of the Bush White House, according to several Republican officials. . . .

"Republicans worry that Libby's court fight will force President Bush to deal with the prospect of top officials testifying and embarrassing disclosures of how the White House operates and treats critics.

"It is also possible, they note, that Libby will strike a plea agreement and avert a public trial."

VandeHei and Leonnig also write that senior adviser Karl Rove, thought by many to have dodged a bullet on Friday, "remains a focus of the CIA leak probe. He has told friends it is possible he still will be indicted for providing false statements to the grand jury."

The Prospect of a Pardon

Peter S. Canellos writes in his Boston Globe column that the recent presidential tradition of "handing out 11th-hour pardons to friends, aides, and colleagues may well be on the mind of the latest White House aide to get hit with indictments, I. Lewis 'Scooter' Libby, who resigned Friday as chief of staff to Vice President Dick Cheney. . . .

"There is little doubt that the special counsel, Patrick J. Fitzgerald, would be quite happy to offer an agreement to keep Libby out of prison in exchange for his testimony against others in the administration who may have plotted to reveal the identity of a CIA operative, Valerie Plame Wilson. . . .

"Since Libby, the 55-year-old father of two young sons, would face up to 30 years in prison and fines of $1.25 million if convicted on all counts, Fitzgerald would appear to have powerful leverage to secure Libby's cooperation. But that leverage disappears if all that Libby has to fear is holding on until Christmas 2008. Then, the president, who said on Friday that Libby had 'sacrificed much in the service to this country,' will be preparing to leave office and thinking about pardons."

June 12, 2003?

Christopher Cooper and Anne Marie Squeo write in the Wall Street Journal: "The fallout from last week's criminal indictment in the CIA-leak case, and the potential political damage for Vice President Dick Cheney, will in some measure depend on the events of June 12, 2003.

"According to the five-count federal indictment against I. Lewis 'Scooter' Libby, that was the day Mr. Libby 'was advised' by Mr. Cheney that former diplomat Joseph Wilson's wife worked in the counterproliferation division of the Central Intelligence Agency. . . .

"In the weeks thereafter, Mr. Libby -- usually known for his discretion -- discussed Mr. Wilson's trip and his wife, Ms. Plame, with reporters and administration officials.

" 'The conversation with Cheney would be the first link in the chain,' says Stephen Hess, a former Nixon administration official now at George Washington University. 'We haven't seen the end of this [matter] by any means -- in fact, we're at the very beginning.' "

Cheney's Message

In spite of his reputation to the contrary, Bush does actually back down sometimes. For instance, public pressure forced him to abandon his initial opposition to the creation of the Homeland Security Department as well as the 9/11 commission.

But Cheney? The man appears to have no reverse gear.

Tom Hamburger and Peter Wallsten write in the Los Angeles Times: "Even as lawmakers were advising the Bush administration to clean house after last week's criminal charges against a top official in the CIA leak case, Vice President Dick Cheney on Monday elevated two aides who emerged as bit players in that saga to replace his indicted former chief of staff."

Here's the official announcement .

Richard W. Stevenson writes in the New York Times: "Mr. Cheney's office said David S. Addington, the vice president's counsel, would become his chief of staff, and John P. Hannah, who had been principal deputy assistant to the vice president for national security affairs, would become Mr. Cheney's assistant for national security.

"Lea Anne McBride, Mr. Cheney's press secretary, said Mr. Addington's new job would also carry with it another title that had been held by Mr. Libby, assistant to the president, placing him in the senior ranks of the White House staff. . . .

"The choices brought immediate criticism from Democrats, who suggested that Mr. Cheney was thumbing his nose at calls for accountability in the leak case.

" 'I've called for a thorough house-cleaning in the vice president's office,' said Senator Charles E. Schumer, Democrat of New York, 'but what they've done is just rearrange some office furniture. It is time for the president and vice president to bring in a new team of advisers who are above ethical reproach, like Reagan did in his second term, not stonewall like Nixon did during Watergate.' "

Jonathan S. Landay and Warren P. Strobel write for Knight Ridder Newspapers about Hannah: "Vice President Dick Cheney replaced I. Lewis 'Scooter' Libby as his national security adviser on Monday with an aide identified by a former Iraqi exile group as the White House official to whom it fed information on Iraq that turned out to be erroneous.

"The Bush administration relied on some of the information from the Iraqi National Congress to argue that Saddam Hussein had to be ousted before he could give banned biological or chemical weapons to al-Qaida for strikes on the United States.

"But no such weapons were discovered after the March 2003 invasion, and U.S. intelligence agencies and the independent commission on the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks found no evidence of operational cooperation between Iraq and al-Qaida."

In anticipation of the Addington promotion, Murray Waas and Paul Singer examined his past in the National Journal on Sunday -- including his role in the Libby indictment. It seems that Addington is who Libby turned to, after his breakfast with New York Times reporter Judy Miller, when he needed more information about Plame.

Also on Sunday, Tom Hamburger wrote in the Los Angeles Times: "Addington has been embroiled in some tough bureaucratic battles on behalf of the vice president, some of which concerned enhancing the power of the executive branch, a longtime interest of Cheney's.

"For example, it was Addington who developed the legal arguments used to shield Cheney from demands by Congress and its investigative agency that the vice president reveal information about private meetings with energy industry lobbyists, which were held while he was drafting his national energy policy report.

"Addington was one of the authors of the White House memo that critics said justified the use of torture on terrorism suspects. And he formally requested that a website making fun of Lynne Cheney, the vice president's wife, take down its material."

And Douglas Jehl wrote in Sunday's New York Times: "Mr. Addington and Mr. Hannah in particular were powerful forces within the administration, and like Mr. Cheney and Mr. Libby, they had often been at odds with the C.I.A. before the war in Iraq. . . .

"Mr. Hannah and Mr. Libby were also the main authors of a 48-page draft speech prepared in January 2003 that was intended to make the administration's case for war in Iraq before the United Nations. The draft was provided to Mr. Powell before his speech to the Security Council on Feb. 5, 2003. But most of its contents were cast aside by Mr. Powell and Mr. Tenet, who ultimately rejected many claims related to Iraq, its weapons program and terrorism as exaggerated and unwarranted."

Briefing Follies

Dana Milbank writes in The Washington Post about yesterday's briefing : "Instead of explaining himself, McClellan appealed for understanding.

" 'I'm very confident in the relationship that we have in this room and the trust that has been established between us,' the spokesman said, making his plea for 'trust' thrice more. 'This relationship is built on trust, and you know very well that I have worked very hard to earn the trust of the people in this room, and I think I've earned it.'

"President Bush tried a similar 'trust me' defense of Miers, telling conservatives she would be sufficiently conservative because he said so. Conservatives didn't buy that, and Miers was withdrawn.

"McClellan doesn't seem to be having any better luck getting the White House press corps to trust him."

A few excerpts:

"Q Some Democrats say that the President should apologize for the role of some administration officials in the unmasking of the name of a CIA undercover operative. What's the White House reaction to that?

"MR. McCLELLAN: First of all, there is a legal proceeding that continues right now, and under our legal system, there is a presumption of innocence. We need to let that legal process continue. If people want to try and politicize this process, that's their business."

And toward the end of a contentious back-and-forth with a frustrated David Gregory of NBC News:

"Q Does the President think that Karl Rove did anything wrong?

"MR. McCLELLAN: Well, I think it would be good for you to allow me the opportunity to respond to your questions without jumping in. I'm glad to do that. I look forward to the opportunity --

"Q I haven't heard a response.

"MR. McCLELLAN: Well, no, I have been responding to you, David, and there's no need -- you're a good reporter, there's no need to be rude or disrespectful. We can have a conversation and respond to these questions, if you'll just give me the opportunity to respond. I'm glad to do that.

"We need to let this legal process continue. The special counsel indicated the other day that it is ongoing. And that's what we're going to do from this White House. That's the policy that we have set for quite some time now."

John Roberts's Sloppy Question

Editor and Publisher reports on an poorly phrased question at the informal, early-morning gaggle yesterday.

"CBS newsman John Roberts asked McClellan if today's appointment of a new nominee for the U.S. Supreme Court amounted to little more than 'sloppy seconds, or what?' Among other things this has a rather unfortunate sexual connotation."

Once the cameras were rolling at the afternoon briefing, Roberts apologized for his "unfortunate choice of words" -- then rephrased the question.

CBS's Public Eye blog has more.

The Alito Nomination

There are far better places than here to track every development in Bush's nomination of Judge Samuel A. Alito Jr. to the Supreme Court -- among them Fred Barbash 's blog on washingtonpost.com.

But I can't ignore it completely.

Dan Balz writes in The Washington Post: "Weakened by scandal, Iraq and the failed nomination of Harriet Miers, President Bush offered up a Supreme Court nominee yesterday guaranteed to rally his fractured Republican base. But the choice of Judge Samuel A. Alito Jr. appears certain to produce an angry ideological battle with the Democrats that will dominate the country's politics heading into next year's midterm elections. . . .

"Whether the upcoming battle, which is likely to focus heavily on the divisive issue of abortion, ultimately helps a president whose approval ratings are scraping 40 percent, and whose support among moderates and independents has plummeted even lower, is an open question -- and one hotly debated among strategists yesterday."

Mark Silva writes in the Chicago Tribune: "President Bush has been forced into the fight conservatives have always wanted him to wage.

"In embracing the conservative wing of his party, Bush has alarmed Democrats and perhaps moderates, and he has made it more difficult to advance the remainder of his agenda, certainly while this fight is playing out."

Ronald Brownstein writes in the Los Angeles Times: "Bush faces the risk that a victory could impose a heavy cost. Even if opponents cannot generate enough pressure to block Alito's Senate confirmation, a highly partisan and ideological fight could further damage Bush's weakened position with swing voters -- and inflict collateral damage on Republican senators struggling with an inhospitable election climate for 2006."

In fact, I have to wonder: Just as Bush's last nomination led to a rebellion by the conservative wing of his party, is it possible that his new one risks a breach with moderate Republicans?

The handful of moderate Republicans in Congress have rarely joined forces with the minority Democrats. But in a weakened presidency, all bets are off. And there is one precedent already: Just last week, moderate House Republicans joined with their Democratic colleagues to force the White House to restore the Davis-Bacon wage protections for workers involved in Hurricane Katrina reconstruction.

And in this case, Bush could conceivably face a revolt not just from Republicans who support abortion rights -- but also from those who fear that the criminalization of abortion would sour voters on Republican candidates in the future.

Cracking the Code

Here's the transcript of Bush and Alito's statements at the White House yesterday.

"He understands that judges are to interpret the laws, not to impose their preferences or priorities on the people," Bush said.

Blogger Kos , spotting Eric Muller 's copy of the White House's talking points on Alito, writes:

"These talking points betray those items the White House think are Alito's biggest weaknesses. But they also show that Bush is STILL unwilling to go to the mat for conservative principles.

"Why NOT say, 'Yeah, he opposes abortion, and I think it's spectacular!'?

"Why NOT say, 'Government has no role in policing discrimination'?

"Why NOT say, 'There SHOULD be less separation between church and state'?"

It's an interesting point. There is, after all, such a thing as judicial ideology. There are judges who believe that abortion should be outlawed, that the government's role in righting social wrongs should be severely limited, and that church and state are not mutually exclusive.

Then there are judges who believe that abortion should remain legal, that the judiciary's role in righting social wrongs has provided its proudest moments, and that the separation of church and state is, well, sacred.

But the White House doesn't seem interested in explaining precisely where Alito stands on this spectrum -- at least not in public.

Ralph Z. Hallow writes in the Washington Times: "Karl Rove called key conservative interest group leaders yesterday morning to give them a heads-up just before the White House made public President Bush's nomination of Judge Samuel A. Alito Jr. to the Supreme Court."

And at the end of the day, we are treated to the spectacle of right-wing ideologues underwriting hugely expensive ad campaigns to convince voters Alito is not a right-win ideologue.

But why, then, do they like him so much?

What Might Have Been

Liberal columnists for three major newspapers today all come to a similar realization.

Robert Scheer writes in the Los Angeles Times: "The most intriguing revelation of Special Prosecutor Patrick J. Fitzgerald's news conference last week was his assertion that he would have presented his indictment of I. Lewis 'Scooter' Libby a year ago if not for the intransigence of reporters who refused to testify before the grand jury. He said that without that delay, 'we would have been here in October 2004 instead of October 2005.'

" Had that been the case, John Kerry probably would be president of the United States today."

Thomas Oliphant writes in the Boston Globe: "[I]magine last week's astonishing developments unfolding in the fall of 2004. Imagine not only the large book of perjury that Fitzgerald threw at I. Lewis Libby, but also the still-tangled web of the infamous Official A in the grand jury's indictment and imagine President Bush trying to explain in the midst of a presidential campaign what that official is still doing on the public payroll."

Or, as E.J. Dionne Jr. put it: "Has anyone noticed that the coverup worked?"

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