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When the Trust Is Gone

By Dan Froomkin
Special to washingtonpost.com
Wednesday, February 22, 2006; 1:36 PM

With President Bush's credibility damaged and his political clout eroded, maybe it was just a matter of time before "trust me" didn't hack it anymore -- even with his most loyal supporters in Congress.

Today, Bush faces a significant political test ever over a sleeper issue

-- the long-proposed turning over of operations at several U.S. ports to a company owned by an Arab country.

Suddenly, it's Bush who is on the receiving end of scathing critiques that he is weak on terror and oblivious to post-9/11 realities.

The issue also revisits the touchy matter of his administration's competence. It echoes the ongoing sensitivity about the separation of powers and lack of congressional oversight. And when it comes to gut-level politics, Bush finds himself caught in the pincers between Republican prejudice and Democratic opportunism.

Given the astonishingly bipartisan nature of the Congressional revolt, it's hard to imagine legislators backing down on this one. The traditional White House approach to rebellion within the GOP -- private arm-twisting -- may not work this time.

So look for White House Plan B, which is to remain steadfast in public while crafting a private retreat that is ultimately spun as a Bush victory.

Not once in Bush's five years as president has he gone to Plan C -- a veto. And while Bush threatened one yesterday, using his very first veto in the face of so much public flak would be a dramatic political defeat. Having that veto overridden would be a debacle.

One question that kept coming up yesterday: Why is this so important to Bush? There's a lot of speculation below. Bush himself says it's about fair play. Some critics suggest he puts free-market corporate values ahead of literally everything else. Or could it be that the White House is concerned that any sign of backing down to Congress on anything right now would be seen as the official start of its slide into lame-duck status?

The Veto Threat

David E. Sanger and Eric Lipton write in the New York Times: "Mr. Bush issued the threat after the Senate majority leader, Bill Frist, and the House speaker, J. Dennis Hastert, publicly criticized the deal and said a thorough review was necessary to ensure that terrorists could not exploit the arrangement to slip weapons into American ports. . . .

"Mr. Frist gave the White House only an hour's notice before breaking ranks and saying that 'the decision to finalize this deal should be put on hold.' He said that if a delay did not occur, he would 'plan on introducing legislation to ensure that the deal is placed on hold until this decision gets a more thorough review.' "

Jim VandeHei and Jonathan Weisman write in The Washington Post: "Facing a sharp bipartisan backlash, Bush took the unusual step of summoning reporters to the front of Air Force One to condemn efforts to block a firm from the United Arab Emirates from purchasing the rights to manage ports that include those in New York and New Orleans. . . .

"He said the transaction was thoroughly scrutinized by administration officials, who concluded that it poses no threat to national security. He praised the United Arab Emirates as a close ally against terrorism and warned of sending the wrong message to the world by condemning a business just because it is Arab-owned. . . .

"Rep. Mark Foley (R-Fla.) called Bush politically tone-deaf. 'Of all the bills to veto, if he lays down this gauntlet, he'll probably have 350 members of the House ready to accept that challenge,' Foley said.

Here's the transcript of Bush's impromptu mini-news conference on Air Force One, where he also committed a new Bushism.

"I want those who are questioning it to step up and explain why all of a sudden a Middle Eastern company is held to a different standard than a Great British [sic] company. I'm trying to conduct foreign policy now by saying to people of the world, we'll treat you fairly."

As for the threat of legislative action, Bush said: "They ought to listen to what I have to say about this. They ought to look at the facts, and understand the consequences of what they're going to do. But if they pass a law, I'll deal with it, with a veto."

Bush snapped at ABC's Jessica Yellin when she asked about the politics of the issue.

"I don't view it as a political fight. So do you want to start your question over? I view it as a good policy."

When Bush by mistake called on his counselor, Dan Bartlett, Bartlett showed how he thinks reporters should behave:

"MR. BARTLETT: I could ask a question. You showed some strong leadership today -- (laughter.)"

Ken Herman writes for Cox News Service that Bush is 'setting up a struggle with Congress over national security and separation of powers.'

" 'DUBAI DUBYA' IN DOCK SHOCK" screams the headline in the New York Post .

Opinion Watch

Dick Polman writes in the Philadelphia Inquirer: "It's rare (aside from the Miers affair) to find an issue that pits Bush against the likes of conservative commentators Cal Thomas , Hugh Hewitt and Michelle Malkin , plus neoconservative hawk Michael Ledeen, ex-Reagan strategist Ed Rollins, Newt Gingrich, the Washington Times editorial page, national-security hard-liner Frank Gaffney, at least two Republican governors, the Senate Republican leader, and (most important) the House Republican leaders and a growing list of GOP lawmakers. . . .

" 'Call it a Harriet Miers moment,' writes Frank Gaffney , a Washington analyst and national-security hawk. 'So, the question recurs: How long will it take before Mr. Bush cuts his losses?' "

Bush may actually find more support on this issue from the liberal side of the spectrum than from conservatives.

Blogger Kevin Drum writes: "I hate to say it, but I can't help but think that Bush may be right about the whole thing."

But Huffington Post blogger David Sirota pulls no punches: "There it is in all its glory: the Establishment publicly pushing the idea that absolutely nothing should matter - not even security concerns - other than preserving the mobility of capital. And that is ultimately what 'free' trade is really all about - allowing capital to move freely all over the world, without regard to any labor, human rights, environmental and - yes - security concerns."

Washington Post columnist Harold Meyerson writes: "National security and freedom of speech are all well and good, but they are distinctly secondary concerns when they bump up against our highest national purpose, which is maximizing shareholder value."

New York Times columnist Maureen Dowd (subscription required) writes: "Mr. Bush is hoist on his own petard. For four years, the White House has accused anyone in Congress or the press who defended civil liberties or questioned anything about the Iraq war of being soft on terrorism. Now, as Congress and the press turn that accusation back on the White House, Mr. Bush acts mystified by the orgy of xenophobia."

Syndicated columnist Kathleen Parker writes: "The Greeks and Sigmund Freud had a name for what may ail President George W. Bush: Thanatos. The death wish."

Editorial Watch

The editorial reaction this morning wasn't nearly as one-sided as the response from Congress.

There were naysayers:

The New York Times : "The Bush administration has followed a disturbing pattern in its approach to the war on terror. It has been perpetually willing to sacrifice individual rights in favor of security. But it has been loath to do the same thing when it comes to business interests. It has not imposed reasonable safety requirements on chemical plants, one of the nation's greatest points of vulnerability, or on the transport of toxic materials. The ports deal is another decision that has made the corporations involved happy, and has made ordinary Americans worry about whether they are being adequately protected."

The New York Daily News : "That giant sucking sound you hear is one really big mob of congressional Republicans evacuating their side of the aisle en masse and galloping over to agree with their left-coast colleagues as fast as they possibly can that the summary selloff of U.S. port operations to Dubai is your basic bad idea. Why, this whole heretofore sorrowfully rent nation has suddenly just come together as one. The day you've got Bill Frist and Hillary Clinton and Denny Hastert and Harry Reid voicing exactly the same concerns practically word for word is the day it can be said that President Bush truly is a uniter and not a divider."

But there were also quite a few expressions of support for Bush:

The Los Angeles Times : "When Members of Congress take homeland security seriously, it's a welcome development. Unfortunately, Tuesday's bipartisan hissy fit over the Bush administration's approval of a Dubai company's $6.8-billion deal to manage six important U.S. ports is neither serious nor welcome."

The Washington Post : "A goal of 'democracy promotion' in the Middle East, after all, is to encourage Arab countries to become economically and politically integrated with the rest of the world. What better way to do so than by encouraging Arab companies to invest in the United States? Clearly, Congress doesn't understand that basic principle, since its members prefer instead to spread prejudice and misinformation."

The Wall Street Journal : "Yesterday Mr. Bush defended his decision to allow the investment to go ahead, and he threatened what would be his first veto if Congress tries to block it. We hope this time he means it."

The Financial Times : "The current furor in Washington about the takeover of P&O, the UK-based ports operator, by Dubai Ports World says more about the United States Congress than the United Arab Emirates. The bluster about national security conceals one of the uglier faces of US protectionism - the one with the slightly racist tinge."

Cartoon Watch

Cartoonists Mike Luckovich , Tony Auth , Stuart Carlson and Pat Oliphant weigh in on the port story.

Why No Vetos?

Ken Herman wrote recently for Cox News Service: "President Bush has resisted the temptation to just say no to legislation. Five years, no vetoes.

"But that doesn't make Bush a rubber-stamper. Instead, in record numbers, Bush has used 'signing statements' to tilt new laws the way he wants them to lean.

"If a veto is a 'no,' a Bush signing statement is a 'yes, but. . . . '

"And critics say it's another example of a president skillfully gobbling up power."

" 'This tour de force has been carried out in such a systematic and careful fashion that few in Congress, the media, or the scholarly community are aware that anything has happened at all,' Phillip Cooper , a Portland State University public administration professor, wrote in a recent edition of Presidential Studies Quarterly."

Scooter Libby Watch

Pete Yost writes for the Associated Press: "Lawyers for Vice President Dick Cheney's former chief of staff deny they are trying to scuttle the prosecution of the ex-White House aide with their demands that the government turn over classified material to the defense.

"In a court filing late Tuesday night, attorneys for I. Lewis 'Scooter' Libby said their client must be given access to large amounts of classified material. . . .

"One of Libby's defenses is that if he made any incorrect statements to investigators, it was inadvertent.

" 'I tend to get between 100 and 200 pages of material a day that I'm supposed to read and understand and I -- you know, I start at 6:00 in the morning and I go to 8 or 8:30 at night,' Libby told the grand jury in testimony his lawyers released in their latest filing.

" 'I can't possibly recall all the stuff that I think is important, let alone other stuff that I don't think is as important . . . . I apologize if there's some stuff that I remember and some I don't,' Libby added."

Carol D. Leonnig writes in The Washington Post: "A Who's Who of Republican heavy hitters and Bush administration supporters are lending their names to help raise $5 million for the defense of Vice President Cheney's former top aide in his criminal trial."

The defense fund has now launched it's own Web site at ScooterLibby.com .

Energy Watch

Elisabeth Bumiller writes in the New York Times: "President Bush acknowledged on Tuesday that his administration had sent 'mixed signals' to the Department of Energy's primary renewable energy laboratory here, where government budget cuts forced the layoff of 32 employees who were then hastily reinstated just before Mr. Bush's visit. . . .

"The president was referring to an embarrassing sidelight of his State of the Union address on Jan. 31, when he called for new research into alternative energy to help wean the nation from its century-old oil habit. But the next day the laboratory announced that a $28 million budget cut was forcing it to lay off researchers in ethanol and wind technology, two of the areas that Mr. Bush cited in his address as full of promise.

"This past weekend, with Mr. Bush's visit to the laboratory looming, the Energy Department announced that it had transferred $5 million back into the laboratory's budget and that the 32 employees would be reinstated."

James Gerstenzang writes in the Los Angeles Times: "The incident underscored the fact that Bush had only recently embraced the sort of research the lab pursues. It also demonstrated the pressures the administration will face as it seeks to decrease the federal budget deficit, maintain tax cuts and pay for the cost of the war in Iraq while embarking on Bush's new energy plan."

Here's the transcript of Bush's talk at the National Renewable Energy Laboratory.

Denver Post columnist Diane Carman notes that none of the formerly laid-off workers was invited to Bush's speech.

"Only a few top NREL administrators were among the 200 guests invited to the event, said NREL spokesman George Douglas.

"The guest list was assembled by the White House, he said."

Democratic Rep. Mark Udall, whose district includes some NREL facilities, was not on the list either. But he apparently crashed.

Udall explained in a press release : "I am proud to have a part of NREL in my district and was particularly proud to accept an invitation by the employees to join them in welcoming the president."

Gargi Chakrabarty quotes Udall in the Rocky Mountain News: "We appreciate having the (NREL) jobs back. But the question is: Is this a photo op and the Bush administration will move on to other challenges?"

William Neikirk writes in the Chicago Tribune: " As Bush conducted a two-day blitz to sell his new energy program by adopting a gee-whiz attitude about the promise of new technologies, he left himself open to criticism that he is doing too little in the present to curb what he calls America's 'addiction to oil.'"

Domestic Spying Watch

David Morgan writes for Reuters: "A top intelligence official was prepared to brief the House Intelligence Committee about President Bush's domestic eavesdropping program in December but was stopped by the White House chief of staff, the ranking Democrat on the committee said Tuesday."

Foreclosures Threaten a Favorite Statistic

One of the few statistics Bush can trumpet when the subject turns to African Americans is that more of them than ever own their own homes. But he may not be able to do so for long.

Vikas Bajaj and Ron Nixon write in the New York Times: "The housing boom of the last decade helped push minority home ownership rates above 50 percent for the first time in 2004 and the overall foreclosure rate below 1 percent. Social scientists laud these accomplishments because ownership can foster greater neighborhood stability and economic progress. President Bush cites rising minority ownership as a milestone achievement under his 'ownership society' programs.

"But hidden behind such success stories lies a disturbing trend: in the last several years, neighborhoods with large poor and minority populations in places like Cleveland, Chicago, Philadelphia and Atlanta have experienced a sharp rise in foreclosures, in some cases more than a doubling, according to an analysis of court filings and other housing data by The New York Times and academic researchers.

"The black home ownership rate even dipped slightly last year, according to the Census Bureau."

Poll Watch

Lydia Saad writes for the Gallup News Service: "According to Gallup's annual World Affairs survey, updated Feb. 6-9, 2006, a majority of Americans today are dissatisfied with the United States' position in the world -- a significant change from the pre-Sept. 11, 2001 climate when most were satisfied."

Asked "Do you think leaders of other countries around the world have respect for George W. Bush, or do you think they don't have much respect for him?" 63 percent of those polled said they thought Bush was not respected. The 33 percent who said Bush was indeed respected reflected an all-time low in the survey, down from 75 percent in the first poll taken after 9/11.

Lowery Speaks Again

Hamil R. Harris writes in The Washington Post: "Responding to charges that he used Coretta Scott King's funeral to mount a partisan attack on President Bush, the Rev. Joseph E. Lowery said yesterday that his conservative critics do not understand black funerals and are seeking to insulate the president from independent views. . . .

"Lowery said the criticism reflects a feeling among Bush's advisers and defenders that the president should not be confronted in public by people who hold opposing views -- a sentiment, he said, that explains why the audience at so many of Bush's events is so carefully screened.

" 'The problem is the Republicans always want to protect Bush,' Lowery said. 'They don't want to expose him to independent-thinking audiences. They want to shelter him from the truth.' "

Woodward and Cheney

On the lecture circuit, author and Washington Post Associate Editor Bob Woodward continues to push the idea that Dick Cheney may run for president in 2008.

Tracy Idell Hamilton writes in the San Antonio Express-News that Woodward "noted that Republicans have a long track record of nominating 'old war horses.'

"Given that, and depending on how things in Iraq proceed, 'You're going to think I'm crazy, but you heard it here first. I think they could nominate Dick Cheney.' "

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