Time for Some Blood-Letting?

By Dan Froomkin
Special to washingtonpost.com
Thursday, November 3, 2005; 12:21 PM

The hunker-down strategy doesn't seem to be working very well for President Bush right now.

So faced with an increasingly festering problem, there are signs that some blood-letting may be in the cards.

Jim VandeHei and Carol D. Leonnig write in The Washington Post: "Top White House aides are privately discussing the future of Karl Rove, with some expressing doubt that President Bush can move beyond the damaging CIA leak case as long as his closest political strategist remains in the administration.

"If Rove stays, which colleagues say remains his intention, he may at a minimum have to issue a formal apology for misleading colleagues and the public about his role in conversations that led to the unmasking of CIA operative Valerie Plame, according to senior Republican sources familiar with White House deliberations. . . .

"Bush's top advisers are considering whether it is tenable for Rove to remain on the staff, given that Fitzgerald has already documented something that Rove and White House official spokesmen once emphatically denied -- that he played a central role in discussions with journalists about Plame's role at the CIA and her marriage to former ambassador Joseph C. Wilson IV, a critic of the Iraq war.

" 'Karl does not have any real enemies in the White House, but there are a lot of people in the White House wondering how they can put this behind them if the cloud remains over Karl,' said a GOP strategist who has discussed the issue with top White House officials. 'You can not have that [fresh] start as long as Karl is there.' "

At the same time, VandeHei and Leonnig write, "there are new indications that he remains in legal jeopardy from Special Counsel Patrick J. Fitzgerald's criminal investigation of the Plame leak."

Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid and House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi yesterday called on Bush in a letter to fire Rove and support congressional investigations into the leak.

"With three years remaining in your term, we believe it is imperative that you move quickly to remove the cloud that hangs over your presidency," they wrote.

"It is totally unacceptable that anyone involved in the unauthorized disclosure of the identity of a CIA officer, including your Deputy Chief of Staff, Karl Rove, should remain employed at the White House with a security clearance."

Jonathan Alter writes in Newsweek that a Rove indictment is unlikely -- but that "he may be in danger of losing his security clearance.

"According to last week's indictment of Scooter Libby, a person identified as 'Official A' held conversations with reporters about Plame's identity as an undercover CIA operative, information that was classified. News accounts subsequently confirmed that that official was Rove. Under Executive Order 12958, signed by President Clinton in 1995, such a disclosure is grounds for, at a minimum, losing access to classified information."

And regardless of whether Rove stays or goes, Jacob Weisberg writes in Slate: "Karl Rove's dream is dying. . . .

"Rove's dream was to reshape American politics by creating a durable Republican majority. . . .

"Many things have gone wrong for Bush, but the underlying problem is his relationship to the constituency that elected him. Bush's debt to his big donors and to religious conservatives has boxed him in and pitted him against the national consensus on various issues. His extremism is undermining Rove's realignment."

Cleaning House

All of this takes place as Bush faces growing calls -- both from friends and critics -- to do some serious house-cleaning.

As I wrote in last Monday's column , even before the Libby indictment, some observers were predicting an upheaval among the president's advisers.

Kenneth M. Duberstein wrote in the New York Times just yesterday that if Bush "is going to change his presidential momentum, he might take a few lessons from the Reagan playbook. . . .

"Reagan's initial move was to change his inner circle: he dismissed old hands like Donald Regan, John Poindexter and Oliver North, and brought former Senator Howard Baker as chief of staff, me as his deputy, Frank Carlucci as national security adviser, and a little-known general, Colin Powell, as Mr. Carlucci's second in command. . . .

"Finally, and also relevant to President Bush's situation, there was Reagan's (belated) apology over Iran-contra. He didn't want to do it, and getting him to do it was like having a root canal, but it was vital to repairing his relationship with the public."

Cheney Hangs Tough

Earlier this week, Vice President Cheney made it clear that he's not the least bit interested in cleaning house: He quickly replaced his indicted chief of staff with two of his closest aides. Both moves, of course, required presidential approval.

Kenneth R. Bazinet writes in the New York Daily News: "Democrats are accusing President Bush of going back on his word by promoting aides allegedly connected to the outing of CIA spy Valerie Plame, according to a letter obtained by the Daily News. . . .

" 'Instead of cleaning house, you simply rearranged some of the furniture,' the Democrats wrote. 'To date, the White House has expressed no concern, no regret, no apology, and no explanation for what happened in the Valerie Plame case.' "

Linda Feldmann writes in the Christian Science Monitor: "The criminal indictment of the vice president's chief of staff, a rare moment in White House history, does not appear to have derailed Dick Cheney's career -- or even his routine.

"The vice president has replaced the aide, I. Lewis 'Scooter' Libby, with two other longtime assistants and seems prepared to continue his role as a central player in the Bush presidency, particularly on foreign policy and the Iraq war."

Poll Watch

A new CBS News poll shows Bush's approval rating dropping to a shockingly low 35 percent -- with 51 percent of those polled saying they consider the leak case a matter of great importance to the nation.

Cheney's favorable rating is down nine points this year to just 19 percent.

John Roberts reports on the CBS Evening News: "The plunging poll numbers is another dose of bad news for a White House mired in it. The only recent president lower at this point in their term was Richard Nixon."

More results can be found here and here .

The poll shows the public considers this the most important political scandal since Watergate, surpassing Clinton-Lewinsky, Whitewater and even Iran-Contra.

It also shows that only 32 percent of Americans think that before the war, the Bush administration was telling all or most of what they knew about weapons in Iraq, compared to 38 percent who feel they were hiding important elements and 26 percent who think they were "mostly lying."

Libby Gets Arraigned

Pete Yost writes for the Associated Press: "Vice President Dick Cheney's former chief of staff pleaded not guilty Thursday in the CIA leak scandal, marking the start of what could be a long road to a trial in which Cheney and other top Bush administration officials could be summoned to testify.

"Libby entered the plea in front of U.S. District Judge Reggie Walton, a former prosecutor who has spent two decades as a judge in the nation's capital.

"Once the charges were read and the judge asked for his response, Libby said: 'With respect, your honor, I plead not guilty.' "

McClellan Hangs in the Breeze

Richard W. Stevenson writes in the New York Times that press secretary Scott McClellan's credibility is "on trial amid the rough justice of the briefing room. . . .

"Though Mr. Libby has not been convicted of charges that he lied in the investigation and was not accused of leaking the agent's identity, and Mr. Rove has not been charged with any wrongdoing, Mr. McClellan's broad assurance that they were 'not involved' now seems, based on what is known publicly about the case, to have been misleading if not downright false.

"Under a barrage of sometimes angry questions from a press corps that feels it was lied to, he has been unwilling or unable to acknowledge that his previous statements are, to use a phrase famously invoked by a predecessor, inoperative. Yet he has offered no defense of them either, and has instead appealed to the better instincts of his journalistic inquisitors, a risky strategy in the midst of a criminal inquiry that has reached into the top ranks of the White House, but perhaps the only one available to him."

Stevenson adds: "Mr. McClellan has been criticized by Democrats as a mouthpiece for an administration that fails to level with the American public, and a number of his other statements regarding the leak investigation have come under scrutiny."

Blame Clinton?

The Think Progress blog got a hold of the transcript of McClellan's early-morning press gaggle yesterday. (Transcripts of the morning gaggles are typically only circulated to the White House staff -- unlike the transcripts of the daily briefing or gaggles held during presidential trips, which are made public.)

Listen to how skeptically the press corps responded to McClellan's awkward attempt to deflect charges that the White House hyped the threat posed by Iraq in the run-up to war -- by blaming the Clinton administration.

"Q Scott, what did the White House make of what happened in the Senate yesterday?

"MR. McCLELLAN: What did we make of it? Do you have a question about it?

"Q Yes, what do you make of it?

"MR. McCLELLAN: Senators talked about it.

"Q I'm just wondering what you all think -- what you all think.

"MR. McCLELLAN: They talked about it yesterday.

"Q I'm just wondering what you all think of it?

"MR. McCLELLAN: Well, if Democrats want to talk about the threat that Saddam Hussein posed and the intelligence, they might want to start with looking at the previous administration and their own statements that they've made. . . .

"Q Isn't your statement in error when you say that the previous administration came to the same conclusion? The previous administration did not come to the same conclusion --

"MR. McCLELLAN: I said the same conclusion, that Saddam Hussein--

"Q -- to intervene militarily.

"MR. McCLELLAN: -- that Saddam Hussein's regime was a threat.

"Q But they didn't go to war.

"Q But isn't the point of the --

"MR. McCLELLAN: You want to talk about their comments? Let's talk about their comments.

"Q But the point of what they raised yesterday is the President's decision to move militarily into Iraq. Are you saying --

"MR. McCLELLAN: There's no more clear example of this threat than Saddam Hussein's Iraq. His regime 'threatens the safety of his people, the stability of his region, and the security of all the rest of us' -- President Clinton, remarks to the Joint Chiefs of Staff and Pentagon staff, February 17, 1998.

"Q But he didn't take us to war.

"Q But isn't the specific issue --

"MR. McCLELLAN: The conclusion they came to was that Saddam Hussein's regime is a threat and a destabilizing force in a dangerous part of the world.

"Q But he didn't take us to war.

"Q But the specific issue is weapons of mass destruction.

"Q But the question was whether the United States --

"MR. McCLELLAN: You asked me about a statement I made, and I just backed up the statement that I made."

But then read how straight Liz Sidoti reported on the matter for the Associated Press. Where did all that healthy skepticism go?

Stonewall Watch

The official White House line on the CIA leak used to be that they wouldn't comment during the investigation and were waiting to see what Fitzgerald concluded.

Now the official line is that they won't comment during legal proceedings, and that Libby is entitled to the presumption of innocence.

Some more from yesterday's gaggle:

"Q Kind of a housekeeping question. You repeatedly say that you've been instructed not to comment on the CIA leaks case, because there's an ongoing investigation. Can we infer from that that when Fitzgerald announces his investigation is completed you will be in a position to comment?

"MR. McCLELLAN: I said I'd be glad to talk more about it after it's come to a conclusion.

"Q Well, would that mark the conclusion?

"MR. McCLELLAN: Would what?

"Q The end of the Fitzgerald investigation.

"MR. McCLELLAN: Well, there's an investigation and legal proceeding. And the comments I make --

"Q So now you're adding court cases.

"MR. McCLELLAN: Well, Bob, I think any time there's been a legal matter going on, we've said, that's a legal matter.

"Q No, what you said is, you can't comment on an ongoing investigation.

"MR. McCLELLAN: No, I think what I said last -- and look what I said --

"Q So you've added the words, 'legal proceeding.'

"MR. McCLELLAN: Well, now there is a legal proceeding.

"Q So you're adding the words, 'legal proceeding,' to the formulation.

"MR. McCLELLAN: That's not -- any time there is a legal proceeding such as that, we don't discuss it. I mean, I think you can look back at --

"Q Because --

"MR. McCLELLAN: Because it's a legal matter, and it's before the courts.

"Q The world is crawling with legal matters that the White House comments on all the time. What sets this apart?

"MR. McCLELLAN: No, there are legal matters that occur all the time that we do not comment on, because they're ongoing legal matters that are before the courts. Remember, numerous times we've referred stuff to the Justice Department because it's an ongoing legal proceeding."

Off to South America

Colin McMahon writes in the Chicago Tribune: "The Americans have landed in Argentina. They brought warships and radar planes, spies and snipers, and armored cars. They laid in food, water and supplies by the ton -- anything President Bush and his team might need over the next few days of the Summit of the Americas.

"The Argentines are on the move, too. Federal police and military specialists have poured into the city of Mar del Plata. Residents frustrated by the intense security have poured out. And other Argentines are flocking to the beach city, eager to protest, agitate and otherwise make their views heard.

"The summit, which opens Friday, brings together leaders of 34 countries in the Western Hemisphere. (Cuba and Fidel Castro are not invited.) But the central figure is Bush. The U.S. president, who is due to arrive Thursday, will have an elaborate security apparatus protecting him. And he will need a tough skin as well."

Monte Reel writes in The Washington Post: "The chilly welcome, according to public opinion polls, reflects a general slide of the U.S. government's popularity throughout South America. While some of the criticism centers on the war in Iraq, much of it is linked to regional economic policies such as privatization and low tariffs promoted by multinational lenders and supported by both the Clinton and Bush administrations."

In addition to the public grip and grins, Bush will be holding a joint press conference with Argentine President Nestor Kirchner on Friday, and another one on Monday with Panamanian President Martin Torrijos.

Crony Watch

Richard Wolffe and Holly Bailey write in Newsweek: "President Bush last week appointed nine campaign contributors, including three longtime fund-raisers, to his Foreign Intelligence Advisory Board, a 16-member panel of individuals from the private sector who advise the president on the quality and effectiveness of U.S. intelligence efforts. After watching the fate of Michael Brown as head of FEMA and Harriet Miers as Supreme Court nominee, you might think the president would be wary about the appearance of cronyism -- especially with a critical national-security issue such as intelligence."

Royal Visit

The White House Web site has the menu and guest list for yesterday's lunch for the Prince of Wales and Duchess of Cornwall.

Here's the dinner menu, guest list, the text of the toasts, and the additional guest list for the after-dinner entertainment.

Among the dinner-dates: Jenna Bush brought her boyfriend, Henry Hager; Mary Cheney brought her partner, Heather Poe; and Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice brought NFL director of football operations Gene A. Washington.

Marian Burros and Lynette Clemetson write in the New York Times about some of the guests:

"The actor Kelsey Grammar, asked why he had been invited, said he was a supporter of the president and 'maybe the only one in L.A.' . . .

"Lt. Gen. Russel L. Honor?, who has became the face of the federal effort to revive New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina, was seated at Mrs. Bush's table. General Honor? said that coming to his first White House dinner was 'a little different from what I usually do, a little cleaner.' "

The New York Daily News sniffs: "A-list celebs were in short supply."

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