NEWS | OPINIONS | SPORTS | ARTS & LIVING | Discussions | Photos & Video | City Guide | CLASSIFIEDS | JOBS | CARS | REAL ESTATE
A Consequential Game of Chicken

By Dan Froomkin
Special to washingtonpost.com
Wednesday, March 28, 2007; 3:46 PM

Yesterday's Senate vote has put President Bush in a real bind.

The combination of veto power and a sizeable Republican minority means the president can reliably block any Democratic legislation he dislikes from becoming law.

But in this case, Bush affirmatively needs Congress to send him a war funding bill so he can keep fighting the war in Iraq. Now that the Democrats have succeeded in attaching a timetable for troop withdrawal to the funding bill, he is left with two basic options: negotiate with the Democrats -- or play a hugely consequential game of chicken.

So far signs are that Bush is going with the latter option.

"Some Democrats believe that by delaying funding for our troops, they can force me to accept restrictions on our commanders that I believe would make withdrawal and defeat more likely," Bush said in a belligerent speech to a boisterous bunch of beef barons this morning. "That's not going to happen. . . .

"The clock is ticking for our troops in the field," he added. "If Congress fails to pass a bill to fund our troops on the front lines, the American people will know who to hold responsible."

The Coverage

Shailagh Murray writes in The Washington Post: "Senate Democrats scored a surprise victory yesterday in their bid to force President Bush to end the Iraq war, turning back a Republican amendment that would have struck a troop withdrawal plan from emergency military funding legislation. . . .

"Democratic leaders think the 50 to 48 victory greatly strengthens their negotiating position as they prepare to face down a White House that yesterday reiterated its threat of a presidential veto."

Noam N. Levey writes in the Los Angeles Times: "With the House having approved its own timelines last week, congressional Democrats are close to presenting the president with a stark choice: Veto the essential war funding or negotiate directly with war critics in a way he has never done.

"'He doesn't get everything he wants now, so I think it's time that he started working with us,' said Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.), a chief architect of the Democratic campaign to pressure Bush to alter his war policy. 'The president must change course.'"

Levey notes: "By allowing the bill to pass, Senate Republicans have effectively left the White House to confront congressional Democrats alone."

Ronald Brownstein writes in his Los Angeles Times opinion column about the apparent stalemate: "Bush has the authority to engineer a change of direction in the war. But he lacks the credibility with the public to reestablish consent for his course.

"Congressional Democrats, even after their seismic Senate victory Tuesday, ultimately lack the leverage to mandate a new course in Iraq. But they offer Bush his only possibility of rebuilding a public consensus over America's role in the war."

A great opportunity for a compromise? Not likely. As Brownstein writes, "Bush is approaching this intensifying debate with what appears to be utter denial about his political situation. . . .

"Increasingly, the White House is demonstrating not only defiance but disdain in its dealings with Congress. . . .

"Bush has approached Congress with the attitude of a teacher determined to discipline unruly kindergarteners, not as the head of a co-equal branch of government."

In spite of the national consensus behind a timetable mandating the withdrawal of all troops from Iraq by fall 2008, Brownstein writes that Bush, in a "flight of fancy, appears convinced that he can still impose his will on Congress through sheer resolve, even though Democrats control both chambers."

The Importance to the White House

As Suzanne Malveaux reported for CNN yesterday, the White House even scrambled Vice President Cheney for the vote.

"There was high drama here at the White House," Malveaux said. "There was a call that came in from Republican leadership 5:00 to Cheney's office that said look, you need to get down here right away. It looks like the vote is going to be very, very close, very tight. His motorcade sped away, he was on the Hill. As being president of the Senate, he was there for the tie-breaking vote. He did not need to cast that vote, because obviously there was that two-vote spread, so it made it a moot point, but very clearly every step of the way is important to this administration."

White House E-Mails

The public disclosure that some White House aides conduct official business using external e-mail accounts -- possibly to avert the White House e-mail system's automatic archiving -- has alarmed Congressional investigators, has piqued the interest of a (scant) few reporters, and has had a sobering effect on White House staffers.

But in the latter case, rather than properly move all their communication into the suitably secure and documented realm of the White House servers, some Bush aides are apparently instead scurrying to put more and more of their communications out of reach of history -- and, they hope, subpoenas.

Paul Bedard writes for U.S. News: "The growing controversy over the firing of federal prosecutors and what administration officials knew about it is renewing concerns among Bush aides over the less-than-secret aspect of E-emails. Those concerns were elevated this week when a House chairman asked that all aides retain their E-mails.

"But just a week after E-mails in the U.S. attorneys case became a main focus of congressional Democrats probing the firings, several aides said that they stopped using the White House system except for purely professional correspondence.

"'We just got a bit lazy,' said one aide. 'We knew E-mails could be subpoenaed. We saw that with the Clintons but I don't think anybody saw that we were doing anything wrong.'

"But the release of White House emails to the Democrats and the expanded request for more from Rep. Henry Waxman has iced the system. At least two aides said that they have subsequently bought their own private E-mail system through a cellular phone or Blackberry server. When asked how he communicated, one aide pulled out a new personal cellphone and said, 'texting.'"

White House spokeswoman Dana Perino was asked about the external e-mail traffic at yesterday's briefing:

"Q What's the White House view on the congressional Democrat calls for safeguarding political emails by the party or by anyone in the White House who may have a sort of political email account?

"MS. PERINO: What I know -- I checked into this -- is that certain White House officials and staff members who have responsibilities that straddle both worlds, that have responsibilities in communication, regular interface with political organizations, do have a separate email account for those political communications. That is entirely appropriate, especially when you think of it in this case, that the practice is in place and followed precisely to avoid any inadvertent violations of what is called the Hatch Act. And so there are some members of the administration that do straddle both worlds. And so under an abundance of caution so that they don't violate the Hatch Act, they have these separate emails.

"Q So is that traffic being safeguarded, if you will, for Congress to look at, if it decides?

"MS. PERINO: With respect to presidential records, an email that is sent to or from a White House email address is automatically archived, even if the other person is not using a White House email account. I believe our -- well, I know that our White House Counsel's Office is in communication with the RNC's (Republican National Committee] general counsel to make sure that those archivings have taken place.

"Q So if someone sent aide X an email at one of these political accounts, are you saying that it would be archived on the --

"MS. PERINO: As a general matter, I believe that to be true, but as I said, the White House -- our White House Counsel's Office is talking to the RNC just to make sure that that's the case. In some cases -- I don't know how far back that goes. I think that -- even though that there was email use in the '90s, I do think that our administration is the first, in a lot of cases, to be dealing with the volume of email that all of us deal with on a daily basis and that now you guys get to have fun with looking through.

"Q So how's the White House going to respond to the request for them?

"MS. PERINO: As I said, our White House Counsel's Office is talking to the RNC, and then we'll try to get back to you.....

"Q How many people have those accounts?

"MS. PERINO: I think it's a handful, I don't think it's a lot. Obviously, the Office of Political Affairs, because they straddle these -- both worlds. I know I don't have one."

But Perino was either accidentally or intentionally muddling the issue.

First of all, there is no question that e-mails to and from White House accounts get archived, regardless of who they come from or are sent to. The issue is what has happened to e-mails to and from White House officials that were kept entirely out of the White House system.

Secondly, while the Hatch Act would appear to prohibit the use of government resources such as e-mail accounts for political purposes, the issue here is the precise opposite: The use of political e-mail accounts for official business. And that raises all sorts of questions about preservation, security, appropriateness, and subterfuge that Perino did not address.

The House Oversight and Government Reform Commmittee on Monday directed the RNC to preserve the emails of White House officials.

And as I wrote in Friday's column, Alexis Simendinger wrote in the National Journal (subscription required): "According to one former White House official familiar with Rove's work habits, the president's top political adviser does 'about 95 percent' of his e-mailing using his RNC-based account. Many White House officials, including aides in the Political Affairs Office, use the RNC account as an alternative to their official government e-mail addresses to help keep their official and political duties separate. Although some White House officials use dual sets of electronic devices for that purpose,

"Rove prefers to use his RNC-provided BlackBerry for convenience, the former official said."

I asked the White House a series of questions about the outside e-mails two weeks ago, but have yet to hear back.

In a letter to the White House today, the activist watchdog group Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Government points out that a Clinton-era White House staff manual explicitly required aides to use White House e-mail accounts for "all official communications." And a September 2000 memo to White House staff specifically banned the use of other e-mail services.

Cancer in the White House

Thoughts about humanity and mortality trumped politics yesterday in the White House briefing room as the White House announced that press secretary Tony Snow has suffered a possibly fatal recurrence of cancer.

William Douglas writes for McClatchy Newspapers: "Perino informed reporters about Snow's cancer during the routine early morning off-camera press briefing. Usually it's contentious, but Tuesday's session was somber as Perino struggled with her composure and reporters respectfully asked questions about Snow's condition.

"Helen Thomas, a Hearst Newspapers columnist and dean of the White House press corps who frequently spars with Snow, told Perino: 'Tell him we hope he'll stay on the job.'"

David Brown writes in The Washington Post: "Precise estimates of survival are not available, although several studies suggest it is about two years on average."

Peter Baker writes in The Washington Post: "The discovery could hardly have come at a worse moment for the administration. It was the latest demoralizing event after weeks that included the conviction of a former White House aide, a guilty plea by another former administration official, the resignations of several other officials and a steady drumbeat of revelations that have jeopardized the attorney general's job.

"And at a time of siege, with Bush wrestling Congress for control of the war in Iraq, Snow's absence while he undergoes treatment will deprive the president of his most prominent public advocate. In his year at the White House lectern, Snow has become the public face of the Bush presidency, a forceful yet upbeat defender of an embattled administration whose verbal jousting and television celebrity made him a popular figure in Republican circles, even when his boss was not. . . .

"Snow was tapped to take over for [Scott] McClellan last spring as part of a White House shake-up and quickly redefined the job. Under Snow, the daily briefing often took on the feel of a cable news back-and-forth and the White House used him regularly on morning television and Sunday talk shows. In a departure for a presidential spokesman, he even hit the campaign trail last fall, headlining dozens of Republican fundraisers, and he remains a big draw on the speaking circuit."

Baker writes that for now, Perino and presidential counselor Dan Bartlett will fill in for Snow.

Said Perino: "I do know that Tony Snow loves this job. He says it is the best job he's ever had in his life. He, in fact, has called it 'communications Disneyland.' (Laughter.) So he loves the job, and I think his intention, of course, is to come back. The President wants to have him back, as you heard today. So as soon as we have more on that, we can let you know. But the intention is that he'll be back, and I just don't know when."

Monica Goodling Watch

Senate Judiciary Chairman Patrick Leahy sent a letter to Attorney General Alberto Gonzales yesterday: "On March 8 you met with me and other Senators in my Capitol office about the mass firings of United States attorneys. You agreed at that time that the five Justice Department employees would cooperate with us in our investigation and that there would be no need for the Committee to utilize its subpoena authority. Soon thereafter, D. Kyle Sampson resigned as your chief of staff. A few days later, we were told that he was no longer employed at the Department of Justice and had hired an attorney. Now we have learned that Monica Goodling has taken a personal leave of absence from the Department and we have been informed by her counsel that she will invoke the Fifth Amendment's privilege against self-incrimination in a criminal matter.

"Is Ms. Goodling still employed by the Department of Justice? What is the employment status of Michael Battle, Michael Elston and William Mercer with the Department of Justice? Please inform the Committee of those employees who have separate counsel."

Speculation continues about on what grounds Goodling is invoking the Fifth Amendment. (See yesterday's column.)

Reynolds Holding writes for Time that the most plausible scenario "is that Goodling suspects committee members of planning a 'perjury trap,' trying to catch her in a lie. And even if she does tell the truth, the committee could still get her if her testimony contradicts what others have told the committee, creating inconsistencies that might 'leave her liable for at least being indicted for perjury,' explains Professor Randolph Jonakait of New York Law School."

Scooter Syndrome

The Wall Street Journal editorial board comes to Goodling's defense: "Democrats determined to play up this faux scandal shouldn't be surprised if government officials decide they'd rather not step into this obvious perjury trap. . . .

"Ms. Goodling has been around, and she can see Democrats don't really want to know the truth; they want to shout 'liar, liar' and set the stage to accuse Justice officials of criminal behavior. . . .

"Count Ms. Goodling's silence as one more unintended consequence of the Scooter Libby case. Mr. Libby made the mistake of cooperating with the investigation into a leak he had nothing to do with, and he later found himself charged with perjury based on little more than conflicting memories of who said what and when. The prosecutor never even charged anyone for the leak that started it all.

"There's no apparent underlying crime in this 'scandal' either, but we'll bet more than one Democrat will soon be calling for a 'special prosecutor' to investigate it nonetheless."

But the Rochester Democrat and Chronicle editorial board sees it another way, suspecting that Goodling invoked the Fifth not because she was afraid she had done something illegal -- but because she was afraid that she might lie.

"Call it the Scooter syndrome, named for I. Lewis 'Scooter'' Libby, the former aide to Vice President Dick Cheney convicted recently of lying under oath. . . .

"[I]t's truly alarming that truth in Washington is such a fragile commodity that it might slip away at any moment, that the line between fact and falsehood is so faint and easily missed that mid-level operatives such as Goodling aren't sure they can stay on the right side."

Gonzales Watch

Dan Eggen writes in The Washington Post: "The attorney general's precise role in the firings . . . is still far from clear. Gonzales's interview Monday with NBC News, and his breakneck tour of U.S. attorney's offices around the country in recent days, has done little to tamp down growing unrest among fellow Republicans over Gonzales's credibility, which has emerged as the central challenge facing the embattled attorney general.

"Gonzales cut short a news conference in Chicago yesterday when an aide halted questions about the firings. The appearance had been scheduled to last 15 minutes; Gonzales walked out after less than three."

Laurie Kellman writes for the Associated Press: "Senate Republicans exiting their weekly policy lunch no longer bothered to defend Gonzales' response to lawmakers' questions about the firings. At most, they mustered an appeal to withhold judgment until the attorney general testifies before the Senate Judiciary Committee on April 17. . . .

"[D]efending Gonzales became more difficult with Monday's refusal by his counsel, Monica Goodling, to testify before the Judiciary Committee with other Justice officials involved in the firings, as the attorney general had promised. She said statements by Democrats indicate they have already concluded wrongdoing on the part of Justice officials, including her. . . .

"Goodling's announcement, some senior Republicans felt, strengthened the Democrats' charge that the Justice Department had something to hide.

"All of which added up to scandal fatigue inside the caucus, the senators said."

Waiting for Sampson

Sridhar Pappu of The Washington Post profiles key U.S. attorney-firing figure Kyle Sampson, who he describes as "short and balding and chubby, looking like a smaller Karl Rove. . . .

"Tomorrow Sampson, 37, appears voluntarily and under oath before the Senate Judiciary Committee. As chief of staff to Attorney General Alberto Gonzales until his resignation March 12, Sampson was the man in charge of the axing of eight federal prosecutors who were perceived as not being with the program the administration wished to prosecute. His testimony could be pivotal as lawmakers probe the depth of involvement in the sacking by Gonzales and the White House."

Among his biographical details: "After a brief stint in private practice at a Salt Lake City law firm, Sampson came to Washington in 1999 to work as counsel of the Senate Judiciary Committee for a man he will face tomorrow, Orrin Hatch. Before long, Sampson joined the Bush transition team following the contested 2000 election. His former law school classmate Elizabeth Cheney, daughter of the vice president, had suggested him for the job, according to a report in the Salt Lake Tribune."

Things Fall Apart

John Dickerson writes in Slate: "An administration that came into office boasting of exemplary teamwork looks like it's going to end in a hail of blame-placing, finger-pointing, and backbiting."

He quotes on "former senior administration official" as saying "it feels like it's every man for himself."

Democratic Overreach?

That the Democrats are going overboard in investigating the Bush administration is becoming an essential Republican talking point -- in spite of poll results that show, for instance, that Americans overwhelmingly support a congressional investigation into White House involvement in the firing of the U.S. attorneys.

The latest salvo: A blistering White House response to a Washington Times story this morning in which Jon Ward reports that "House Democrats are set today to bring in private sector lawyers -- at a cost of up to $225,000 over the next nine months -- to help committee staff investigate the Bush administration."

The White House this morning e-mailed reporters this statement from Perino: "The House Judiciary Committee's decision to award a $225,000 contract to a private law firm for work related to the dismissal of U.S. Attorneys is further evidence that Democrats care more about investigations than legislation. The contract does not devote one penny to the challenges the American people expect their leaders to address, like protecting American citizens from terror, decreasing our dependence on foreign sources of energy, and making health care more affordable. Instead of funding show trials, the Democrats should show they care about passing a responsible budget and giving our military commanders in Iraq the resources they need to win. We look forward to the House Judiciary Committee's disclosure of its bidding process for awarding this taxpayer-funded contract."

Royal Snub

Jim Hoagland writes in his Washington Post opinion column: "President Bush enjoys hosting formal state dinners about as much as having a root canal. Or proposing tax increases. So his decision to schedule a mid-April White House gala for Saudi Arabia's King Abdullah signified the president's high regard for an Arab monarch who is also a Bush family friend.

"Now the White House ponders what Abdullah's sudden and sparsely explained cancellation of the dinner signifies. Nothing good -- especially for Condoleezza Rice's most important Middle East initiatives -- is the clearest available answer."

Hoagland writes that the Saudis "see Bush swimming against a tide of scandal and stench that engulfs his most trusted aides. In the traditional Saudi worldview, this is a moment to hedge, not to indulge in the kind of leadership needed to break the Israeli-Palestinian deadlock or the deadly morass of Iraq."

Commencement Watch

Peggy Fletcher Stack writes in the Salt Lake Tribune: "Some Brigham Young University students, faculty and alumni have launched several petition drives voicing their opposition to Vice President Dick Cheney speaking at the school's commencement in April. . . .

"An online petition at http://cheneyspeech.blogspot.com says, 'Cheney has made misleading statements about the tragic war which continues in Iraq, levied outrageous partisan accusations against his Democratic opponents, and used vulgarity on the Senate floor. He has been linked to serious scandals involving botched intelligence reports, no-bid contracts awarded to friends and political donors, and perjury convictions handed down to his own staff.'"

Bush will speak on April 28 on the Kendall Campus of Miami Dade College, then on May 11 at St. Vincent College in Latrobe, Pa., and finally at the U.S. Coast Guard Academy on May 23.

Joe Curl writes in the Washington Times: "In an 'Open Letter to President Bush from Saint Vincent College Friends, Students and Alumni,' [an] online petition charges that the president is 'squandering . . . the lives of our troops by clinging to failed tactics in an ill-conceived, unjustified war' and his policies 'are at odds with our values.'"

Live Online

I'm Live Online today at 1 p.m. ET.

Cartoon Watch

Pat Oliphant on Bush's good dog; Mike Luckovich on Rove rules; Dwane Powell on the revenge of the mouse.

© 2007 Washingtonpost.Newsweek Interactive