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McCain Defeats Cheney

By Dan Froomkin
Special to washingtonpost.com
Friday, December 16, 2005; 3:36 PM

President Bush's cave-in yesterday on Sen. John McCain's torture ban was embarrassing for him -- but it was a total debacle for Vice President Cheney.

Cheney had publicly taken the lead in trying to scuttle McCain's proposal. When that proved both unseemly and ineffective, Cheney was equally publicly pulled off the case.

When Stephen Hadley -- the like-minded but not nearly as tightly wound national security adviser -- also failed to either rally the GOP ranks or roll McCain, Bush chose to surrender and call it victory.

Cheney was conspicuously absent when Bush invited McCain to the Oval Office yesterday and announced his decision to embrace legislation that was in almost every way identical to what he had promised to veto five months ago.

In fact, the image of Bush and McCain sitting side by side in that room raised the following hypothetical question: Who would be a better vice president for Bush right now, Cheney or McCain?

On the torture issue, the answer is obvious: McCain. Cheney's up-front advocating of the "dark side" was increasingly making even members of his own party distinctly uncomfortable.

What are some of the other themes plaguing the White House these days?

There's the whole lack of candor thing. Bush has recently gotten good press for admitting mistakes -- but its worth noting that they're other people's mistakes. Even now, he's still not admitting he did anything wrong himself. Cheney is certainly not partial to airing dirty laundry. By contrast, McCain is the poster-boy for candor.

There's the corruption issue afflicting the Republican Party in general. Cheney is Mr. Halliburton. McCain is Mr. Clean. He's the champion of campaign finance reform.

And there's the fact that, in part because Cheney is not planning to run for president, the White House is careening headlong into full lame duck status. As attention turns to the 2008 presidential election, a lot of people may be asking if Bush is even relevant.

By contrast, with the Republican heir apparent at his side, Bush's own position could be enhanced -- as could his ability to make Karl Rove's dream of long-term Republican political dominance come true.

I'm not predicting anything's actually going to happen. I'm just saying you might want to prepare for another round of the dump-Cheney tom-toms.

Torture Watch

The White House's official position yesterday was that this was neither a defeat nor a reversal for the president. But the press corps wasn't having any of it.

Josh White writes in The Washington Post: "President Bush reversed position yesterday and endorsed a torture ban crafted by Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) after months of White House attempts to weaken the measure, which would prohibit the 'cruel, inhuman, or degrading' treatment of any detainee in U.S. custody anywhere in the world. . . .

"The discussions began seriously in July, when Vice President Cheney pulled McCain, Graham and Sen. John W. Warner (R-Va.) into a room off the Senate floor and sternly argued that the provision could usurp the president's authority and would interfere with his ability to protect the nation from terrorist attack.

"But McCain would not budge, officials said, and after several months of tense negotiations with Cheney, he went to Bush, said congressional aides. Bush tapped national security adviser Stephen J. Hadley to take over the discussions about six weeks ago.

"First, Hadley asked McCain to exempt CIA officials from the ban on harsh treatment, a move McCain rejected. Then Hadley requested language that would allow the president or the attorney general to grant waivers in extraordinary circumstances -- such as if a terrorism suspect has information about an impending attack on the United States -- which McCain also rejected, congressional aides said."

Eric Schmitt writes in the New York Times: "For Mr. Bush, it was a stinging defeat, considering that his party controls both houses of Congress and both chambers had defied his threatened veto to resoundingly support Mr. McCain's measure. It was a particularly significant setback for Vice President Dick Cheney, who since July has personally led the administration's fight to defeat the amendment or at least exempt the Central Intelligence Agency from its provisions."

Maura Reynolds and Greg Miller write in the Los Angeles Times: "The agreement represented a rare policy reversal for Bush on his signature issue: his leadership in the battle against terrorism. It followed an unusual rebuke of the president from lawmakers in his own Republican Party, who largely fell in line behind McCain, a former Vietnam prisoner of war and torture survivor with unassailable authority on the subject."

Peter Baker writes in The Washington Post: "Once again the awkward, freighted Bush-McCain relationship with all its history of rivalry and resentment took center stage in American politics yesterday, as the second-place finisher in the 2000 Republican presidential primaries forced the first-place finisher to swallow something he once opposed. . . .

"The complicated relationship between the two men has swung through many phases during Bush's presidency, from the chilly early days through a rapprochement last year when McCain joined Bush on the campaign trail. As McCain prepares his own campaign to succeed Bush in 2008, many in the White House continue to eye him warily. But Bush strategist Mark McKinnon has said he would be willing to help the senator, which some advisers consider a sign that the president has made his peace with McCain."

Peter Wallsten writes in the Los Angeles Times that "the crucial role played by McCain only accentuated his standing as a front-runner for the party's presidential nomination in 2008."

Bush and McCain "sat in chairs in front of the Oval Office fireplace, a backdrop typically used for meetings with world leaders. 'You're a good man who honors the values of America,' Bush said.

"After each man made his remarks, the president reached out his hand.

"At first, the senator didn't notice, but Bush persisted, holding his arm in the air until McCain grasped his hand with a firm shake."

Here's the transcript of the Bush-McCain meeting.

McCain was more than gracious in victory. But he didn't mention Cheney.

"Thank you, Mr. President. I want to take this opportunity to thank you for the effort that you made to resolve this very difficult issue. I thank you for your active participation in it. And I also want to thank your National Security Advisor, Steve Hadley, who played a very important role, as well."

After the event, Hadley met with the press. Here's that transcript .

"Q Steve, it seems as if a lot of what you ended up with, almost all of what you ended up with is essentially what Senator McCain was telling us several weeks ago he was offering you. And he seemed to confirm that out on the driveway.

"MR. HADLEY: No, he didn't. He didn't. Actually, that's just not the case."

Domestic Spying

James Risen and Eric Lichtblau writes in the New York Times: "Months after the Sept. 11 attacks, President Bush secretly authorized the National Security Agency to eavesdrop on Americans and others inside the United States to search for evidence of terrorist activity without the court-approved warrants ordinarily required for domestic spying, according to government officials.

"Under a presidential order signed in 2002, the intelligence agency has monitored the international telephone calls and international e-mail messages of hundreds, perhaps thousands, of people inside the United States without warrants over the past three years in an effort to track possible 'dirty numbers' linked to Al Qaeda, the officials said. The agency, they said, still seeks warrants to monitor entirely domestic communications. . . .

"The White House asked The New York Times not to publish this article, arguing that it could jeopardize continuing investigations and alert would-be terrorists that they might be under scrutiny. After meeting with senior administration officials to hear their concerns, the newspaper delayed publication for a year to conduct additional reporting."

DeLay Watch

Jonathan Weisman writes in The Washington Post: "Democratic leaders sternly criticized President Bush yesterday for saying former House majority leader Tom DeLay (R-Tex.) is innocent of felonious campaign finance abuses, suggesting his comments virtually amounted to jury tampering before DeLay stands trial. . . .

"Administration officials have repeatedly deflected questions about other legal probes -- especially Special Counsel Patrick J. Fitzgerald's inquiry into the leaking of CIA operative Valerie Plame's name -- by saying they could not comment on ongoing investigations. White House spokesman Scott McClellan called the apparent inconsistency a 'presidential prerogative.'"

Briefing Follies

Here's the transcript of yesterday's briefing.

"Q Scott, the President told Brit Hume that he thought that Tom DeLay is not guilty, even though the prosecution is obviously ongoing. What does the President feel about Scooter Libby? Does he feel that Mr. Libby --

"MR. McCLELLAN: A couple of things. First of all, the President was asked a question and he responded to that question in the interview yesterday, and made very clear what his views were. We don't typically tend to get into discussing legal matters of that nature, but in this instance, the President chose to respond to it. Our policy regarding the Fitzgerald investigation and ongoing legal proceeding is well-known and it remains unchanged. And so I'm just not going to have anything further to say. . . .

"Q But it's hypocritical. You have a policy for some investigations and not others, when it's a political ally who you need to get work done?

"MR. McCLELLAN: Call it presidential prerogative. . . .

"Q Doesn't it raise questions about his credibility that he's going to weigh in on some matters and not others, and we're just supposed to sit back and wait for him to decide what he wants to comment on and influence?

"MR. McCLELLAN: Congressman DeLay's matter is an ongoing legal proceeding --

"Q As is the Fitzgerald investigation --

"MR. McCLELLAN: The Fitzgerald investigation is --

"Q -- As you've told us ad nauseam from the podium.

"MR. McCLELLAN: It's an ongoing investigation, as well. . . .

"Q And the public is supposed to accept the fact that he's got no comment on the conduct of senior officials of the White House, but when it's a political ally over on the Hill who's got to help him get work done, then he's happy to try to influence that legal process.

"MR. McCLELLAN: No, not at all. Not at all. You can get all dramatic about it, but you know what our policy is."

Another Non-Answer

Reuters reports: "The White House took issue on Thursday with a claim by syndicated columnist Robert Novak that President George W. Bush knows who the source is who leaked the identity of CIA operative Valerie Plame.

" 'I don't know what he's basing it on,' said White House spokesman Scott McClellan, declining to comment further."

The 'Same Intelligence'?

Dafna Linzer writes in The Washington Post: "A congressional report made public yesterday concluded that President Bush and his inner circle had access to more intelligence and reviewed more sensitive material than what was shared with Congress when it gave Bush the authority to wage war against Iraq."

Here's that Congressional Research Service report .

Dana Milbank wrote in The Post yesterday that as of Wednesday, Bush had asserted fully 102 times that Congress saw "the same intelligence" about Iraq's weapons as he did.

But I guess that doesn't make it so.

New Orleans Watch

Joby Warrick and Peter Baker write in The Washington Post: "The Bush administration yesterday pledged an additional $1.5 billion in federal spending to strengthen New Orleans's storm-battered levees, vowing to give the city 'better and safer' flood walls but stopping short of explicitly promising protection against catastrophic Category 5 hurricanes."

The White House announced the measure at yesterday's press briefing .

But no one asked the $1.5 billion question: Where is this money coming from? Is it just being added to the deficit? Is the White House taking it away from other programs? Will taxes go up?

I mean, $1.5 billion -- you're talking real money.

Iraq Votes

Elisabeth Bumiller writes in the New York Times: "There was cheer and relief at the White House on Thursday over the Iraqi election as President Bush declared the vote 'a major step forward' in creating a democratic nation that he said would set an example for others in the region."

Here's the transcript from a photo op Bush held with some Iraqi voters yesterday.

The Big Christmas Party

I wasn't invited to either of last night's two big White House Christmas parties for the press. But David Lightman writes in the Hartford Courant that approximately 1,250 other media people and their guests were.

"What happened to the grizzled snarlers who spend their lives questioning Bush's every smile and grimace?" Lightman asks.

"Hey, say the Washington veterans, chill. It's Christmas. . . .

"In truth, each reporter usually gets time to utter about a sentence to Bush in the receiving line. (The Courant was told that Sen. Joe Lieberman is a 'man of great courage.')

"The Bushes, standing under a portrait of George Washington in the Diplomatic Reception Room, on the first floor, greet each person by name because a military aide announces it. The president shakes hands for two hours, takes a break, presumably to wash his hands and rest them, and then returns for two more hours."

A few other attendees also e-mailed me their observations.

One wrote: "It's the one evening out of the year when it's difficult to suppress pangs of sympathy for the President. Would you want to have thousands of people that you don't really like over to your house? . . .

"Each invitee gets to bring a guest. Last night, by some strange second-term quirk, everyone seemed to have brought either their kids or their moms. . . .

"One of the regular dynamics is for a mingling White House staffer to greet the media person's guest extremely warmly, then praise the media person lavishly if carefully ('there's no smarter reporter in the White House press corps than your daughter!')"

Another attendee just couldn't get over how thin Karl Rove looked. (And here's a recent Reuters photo ; he has lost weight!).

Rove was "very visible, mingling and chatting with all comers, posing for pictures, playing with the little kids. The first thing you notice is the astounding weight loss. . . . Everyone was sort of buzzing about it."

Another hot topic of conversation: Whether McClellan will be sticking around much longer.

New from JibJab

JibJab is out with a year-in-review video, starring an animated George W. Bush: "My approval rating's in a dive/Hope it's not another year like 2-0-5/. . . . Oh a leak investigation's got my White House in a snarl/There's a special prosecutor after my friend Karl."

Bush's Ipod

Sky News yesterday Web-posted the highly amusing video of an exchange between Fox News's Brit Hume and Bush that took place after their formal interview Wednesday had concluded.

Adrian Shaw in the British tabloid the Daily Mirror writes: "President Bush made a fool of himself yet again yesterday as he got in a muddle over his new iPod.

"The hapless President was trying to demonstrate how cool and trendy he was as he proudly showed off the music player in the Oval Office.

"But he blundered when he called American Pie singer Don McLean 'Dan'.

"And he spouted a lot of meaningless jargon as he tried to explain how the iPod worked.

"The President floundered: 'I get the shuffle and then I shuffle the shuffle.' "

In the Washington Post, Amy Argetsinger and Roxanne Roberts have a transcript of part of the interview, which includes Bush rattling off a list of who's on his Ipod. He actually cops to listening to the Archies.

Wallace and the Spin Zone

Conservative Fox News anchor Bill O'Reilly interviewed White House Communications Director Nicolle Wallace last night and they talked a lot about the relationship between the White House and the press.

"O'REILLY: I've gone on record saying 75 percent of the American press is anti-Bush. And a lot of the Iraq criticism is driven by a hatred in some quarters for the president. Do you subscribe to that?

"WALLACE: I don't, I can't. I couldn't do my job if I did. . . .

"O'REILLY: So you have to live in denial, Ms. Wallace? You can't accept the fact that the media is viciously anti-Bush?

"WALLACE: Well, look, I -- there are challenges. I've been working for this president for five years. And there are always challenges to getting the message out. And I think we saw that come into sharp focus during the campaign with the National Guard story and the CBS situation. But I think at the White House, there is a press corps that's deeply committed to getting it right.


"WALLACE: And we have to play to their - you know, their best motives.

"O'REILLY: Look, I'm not worried about the White House press corps. But look, 'Newsweek' magazine, Bush is in a bubble . There he is on a bubble, OK?

"WALLACE: Unbelievable.

"O'REILLY: Right?

"WALLACE: Right.

"O'REILLY: ' Time ' magazine, pretty much the same article.

"WALLACE: Right.

"O'REILLY: All right, not on the cover, but the same thing. There's the bubble. The New York Times then picks up the anonymous sources that talk to 'Newsweek' and prints them in The New York Times.

"WALLACE: Right.

"O'REILLY: Dowd's column.

"WALLACE: Right.

"O'REILLY: Frank Rich hates the president, another New York Times columnist.

"WALLACE: Right, right.

"O'REILLY: Paul Krugman hates the president, right? Another New York Times columnist. Bob Herbert hates the president.

"WALLACE: Right. . . .

"O'REILLY: Washington Post doesn't like the president. L.A. Times doesn't like the president. Atlanta Constitution doesn't like him. Boston Globe doesn't like him. What's going on?

"WALLACE: Well, thank God 65 percent to 75 percent of the American people don't get their news from any of those places. They get their news from the local paper that they look at.

"O'REILLY: But they carry the syndicated pieces.

"WALLACE: Sure, they do. But they also do a lot of their own reporting. Look, no doubt it's a challenge. And after this segment, I may go back to the White House and request combat pay. But no doubt it's a challenge. But that's why. . . .

"O'REILLY: Shouldn't you and the president address this directly and say, this is unfair? It's unfair to put the guy in a bubble using anonymous sources? The only guy quoted in the whole 'Newsweek' article is Andy Card.

"WALLACE: Right. . . .

"O'REILLY: But look, those of us who try to be fair, and I do, and I think the FOX News channel does.

"WALLACE: Right.

"O'REILLY: [We] know there is a virulent anti-Bush feeling in the American media. And that feeling every single day is drummed home, which is part of the reason he's fallen in the polls. Shouldn't you and the president fight that head on?

"WALLACE: We have started fighting back and engaging the press a lot more aggressively than I think - than I know we ever had as a White House. We started a new product called Setting the Record Straight, where we take on the stories that are just egregiously wrong. We take on the reporters by name. And we call out the inaccuracies. So we've become a lot more aggressive about calling out the things that are egregious, but we could certainly engage more robustly. And.

"O'REILLY: I don't know why you don't do it. And I think most of our audience doesn't know why you don't do it. . . .

"WALLACE: Right. Well, I think we can - we take some satisfaction in the fact that even, with what we're up against in the media, they are finally focusing on the complete disarray on the Democratic side.'"

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