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Bush Challenged on Iraq

By Dan Froomkin
Special to washingtonpost.com
Thursday, April 19, 2007; 12:34 PM

Something we're not allowed to see in public happened yesterday in the White House's Cabinet Room: President Bush was challenged and got angry.

There were no pyrotechnics, but according to multiple reports Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid compared Iraq to Vietnam at one point in a closed door meeting with Bush. Specifically, Reid suggested that Bush was pursuing a lost cause at the cost of American troops in order to protect his legacy.

Bush's reaction: He was "visibly angered" says the New York Times; he "bristled" according to the Associated Press. And he "denied this forcefully, after which Mr. Reid touched his arm in a gesture of friendliness," write the Wall Street Journal.

Could this have been the first time Bush has come face to face with someone willing to confront him so bluntly on the signature issue of his presidency?

We don't know. Bush is well known for living inside a protective bubble where accommodating staffers keep opposing views -- and those who hold them -- at bay.

It's certainly never happened where the public can see -- and judge the president's reaction for itself.

The Meeting

Jeff Zeleny and Jim Rutenberg write in the New York Times: "After weeks of acrimonious sparring over financing the next phase of the war, President Bush and Congressional leaders softened their tone on Wednesday but failed to resolve their differences over a timeline for removing most American combat troops from Iraq next year. . . .

"The discussions took place on one of the deadliest days of the year in Baghdad, where at least 171 people were killed in bombings. Democrats said the violence underscored the urgency of finding a new direction in Iraq, one that did not place American troops in the middle of a civil war.

"At the beginning of the meeting, Mr. Bush declared, 'People have strong opinions around the table and I'm looking forward to listening to them.' And for the next hour, according to participants and aides in the room, a frank conversation unfolded between the president and the 10 legislative leaders seated around the table in the Cabinet Room. . . .

"Members of the group, which included four senators and six representatives, all spoke, including Mr. Reid, who compared the Iraq war to the Vietnam War and suggested to Mr. Bush that he should not continue with the war simply to protect his legacy. The president was visibly angered by the comment, according to aides, but he did not respond directly. . . .

"During the meeting, Mr. Bush was the only administration official who spoke, though he was accompanied by Vice President Dick Cheney, the White House chief of staff, Joshua B. Bolten, the national security adviser, Stephen J. Hadley, and others."

David Espo writes for the Associated Press: "Several officials said the session was polite. But they said it turned pointed when Reid recounted a conversation with generals who likened Iraq to Vietnam and described it as a war in which the president refused to change course despite knowing victory was impossible. Bush bristled at the comparison, according to several officials, who spoke on condition of anonymity because the meeting was private. One quoted him as saying, 'I reject' the comparison.

"It was the first time Reid and Speaker Nancy Pelosi of California have met with Bush to discuss the war since the House and Senate approved bills to provide funds for the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan with conditions that he has vowed to reject. . . .

"'We believe he must search his soul, his conscience and find out what is the right thing for the American people,' Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid of Nevada, told reporters after the session. 'I believe signing this bill will do that.'

"But Dana Perino, White House spokeswoman, said, 'It appears that they are determined to send a bill to the president that he won't accept. They fundamentally disagree.'"

David Rogers writes in the Wall Street Journal (subscription required): "One of the sharpest exchanges came when Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D., Nev.) suggested that, like President Lyndon Johnson in the Vietnam War, Mr. Bush was plunging ahead not wanting to admit that the war couldn't be won. The president denied this forcefully, after which Mr. Reid touched his arm in a gesture of friendliness. And at another point, Mr. Bush allowed that he shared many of Ms. Pelosi's goals in changing the mission of U.S. troops in Iraq, but believed Congress was going about it in the wrong way."

So where does it go from here? Peter Baker and Jonathan Weisman write in The Washington Post: "Congressional Democratic leaders are moving to make their proposed timetable for withdrawing U.S. troops from Iraq 'advisory' as they seek to reconcile two versions of war spending legislation into a single bill that they plan to pass next week, according to several House members.

"The compromise language would keep the deadlines included in the original House bill but make them nonbinding, as the Senate version did, and would allow President Bush to waive troop-readiness standards, lawmakers said. Bush has vowed to veto legislation with timetables in it, calling it a schedule of surrender, but Democrats hope to show that they are being flexible and the president rigid by softening the terms."

Gonzales Watch

Attorney General Alberto Gonzales is testifying today before the Senate Judiciary Committee in what Republican Sen. Arlen Specter has dubbed his "re-confirmation hearing."

Here is the text of committee chairman Patrick Leahy's opening statement: "Last November, the American people rejected this Administration's unilateral approach to government and to the President acting without constitutional checks and balances. Rather than heed that call, within days of that election, senior White House and Justice Department staff finalized plans to proceed with the simultaneous mass firings of a large number of top federal prosecutors.

"By so doing, they sent the unmistakable message -- not only to those forced out but also to those who remained -- that traditional, independent law enforcement by U.S. Attorneys would no longer be tolerated by this Administration. Instead, partisan loyalty had become the yardstick by which all would be judged.

"I cannot excuse the Attorney General's actions and his failures from the outset to be forthright with us, with these prosecutors and with the American people.

"The White House political operatives who helped spearhead this plan did not have effective and objective law enforcement as their principal goal. They would be happy to reduce United States Attorneys offices to another political arm of the Administration.

"If nothing improper was done, people need to stop hiding the facts and need to tell the truth, the whole truth. If the White House did nothing wrong, then show us. Show us the documents and provide us with the sworn testimony of what was done -- why, and by whom. If there is nothing to hide, then the White House should quit hiding it.

"Quit claiming the e-mails cannot be produced and quit contending that the American people and their duly elected representatives cannot see and know the truth."

Peter Baker writes in this morning's Washington Post that Gonzales is the ultimate "loyal Bushie." As a result: "Few moments in Bush's presidency have tested the limits of loyalty more acutely than this one. . . .

"Critics believe this fixation on loyalty has left the president isolated from dissent and surrounded by ideological yes men, but it has also given him a team that has remained unusually cohesive through adversity, at least until recently, as more former insiders have spoken out critically. . . .

"Bush does not think Gonzales did anything wrong in dismissing the prosecutors, according to aides, but has been aggravated by his friend's clumsy, shifting explanations of what happened. In effect, advisers said, Bush is giving Gonzales a chance to fix the situation today. . . .

"Should he stumble, some Republicans said, Gonzales has a responsibility to fall on his sword, sparing Bush having to ask."

The New York Times editorial page asked four legal experts to propose questions for Gonzales. Here is one from Jeffrey Rosen: "Your determination to fire prosecutors who were not 'loyal Bushies' has its intellectual roots in the theory of the 'unitary executive,' which holds that the president should be able to extend his political control over all executive branch officers, including not only political appointees but also lower-level career officials. Are you familiar with the leading scholarly defenses of this theory, and do you agree with them?"

The Los Angeles Times editorial board writes: "At the risk of prejudging what Gonzales might say about the role he played in the firings of eight U.S. attorneys, we reject the conventional wisdom that the hearing offers him an opportunity to save his job.

"The melodramatic notion that this is a 'make or break' appearance for Gonzales has been encouraged by the White House. . . .

"Gonzales will couple unambiguous denials of any personal wrongdoing with hedged defenses of what was done in his name. For example, he says in his prepared opening statement that 'based upon the record as I know it, it is unfair and unfounded for anyone to conclude that any U.S. attorney was removed for an improper reason.' That's just the sort of careful language one would expect from an attorney general who subcontracted his decision-making to a meddlesome White House at one end of the process and a hatchet-man chief of staff at the other.

"Congress should continue to untangle the sequence of events that led to these firings, and Gonzales' testimony might prove helpful. But nothing will rehabilitate his reputation as the under-qualified attorney general who was AWOL when a harebrained White House scheme to sack all 93 U.S. attorneys morphed into a narrower hit on targets that included two prosecutors whose decisions had embarrassed the Republican Party."

Joan Vennochi writes in her Boston Globe opinion column that "more important than the issue of one man's employment is this bigger question: Can the public ever get a straight answer from anyone in the Bush administration? The answer appears to be no, whether the matter is foreign or domestic."

CBS News is out with a new poll: "Of all Americans, 36% think Gonzales should resign or be removed from his post as a result of the firings; 28% think he should not, while just over a third is unsure. But among all who are closely following the story, more than half -- 52% -- think Gonzales should resign."

Voter Fraud Watch

Greg Gordon of McClatchy Newspapers tackles the very central issue of voting fraud (or voting rights, depending on how you frame it.)

"For six years, the Bush administration, aided by Justice Department political appointees, has pursued an aggressive legal effort to restrict voter turnout in key battleground states in ways that favor Republican political candidates.

"The administration intensified its efforts last year as President Bush's popularity and Republican support eroded heading into a midterm battle for control of Congress, which the Democrats won.

"Facing nationwide voter registration drives by Democratic-leaning groups, the administration alleged widespread election fraud and endorsed proposals for tougher state and federal voter identification laws. Presidential political adviser Karl Rove alluded to the strategy in April 2006 when he railed about voter fraud in a speech to the Republican National Lawyers Association.

"Questions about the administration's campaign against alleged voter fraud have helped fuel the political tempest over the firings last year of eight U.S. attorneys, several of whom were ousted in part because they failed to bring voter fraud cases important to Republican politicians. Attorney General Alberto Gonzales could shed more light on the reasons for those firings when he appears Thursday before the Senate Judiciary Committee.

"Civil rights advocates charge that the administration's policies were intended to disenfranchise hundreds of thousands of poor and minority voters who tend to support Democrats, and by filing state and federal lawsuits, civil rights groups have won court rulings blocking some of its actions."

Supreme Court Watch

Greg Stohr writes for Bloomberg: "The U.S. Supreme Court yesterday erased any doubts that President George W. Bush has succeeded in shifting the court's balance.

"The court's 5-4 vote upholding the Federal Partial Birth Abortion Ban Act almost surely wouldn't have occurred before Bush's appointments of Chief Justice John Roberts and Justice Samuel Alito."

Linda Greenhouse writes in the New York Times: "The most important vote was that of the newest justice, Samuel A. Alito Jr. In another 5-to-4 decision seven years ago, his predecessor, Justice Sandra Day O'Connor, voted to strike down a similar state law. Justice Alito's vote to uphold the federal law made the difference in the outcome announced Wednesday. . . .

"The decision was a major victory for the Bush administration and its vigorous defense of the law, which President Bill Clinton had vetoed twice before President Bush signed it.

"Mr. Bush welcomed the ruling, saying: 'The Supreme Court's decision is an affirmation of the progress we have made over the past six years in protecting human dignity and upholding the sanctity of life. We will continue to work for the day when every child is welcomed in life and protected in law.'"

E-Mail Watch

In a letter to the Republican National Committee, House Oversight and Government Reform Committee Chairman Henry Waxman yesterday notes that the RNC has refused several requests for information, and he demands some basic facts by Friday, including:

"1. The identity of all White House officials who have held RNC e-mail accounts;

"2. The total number of e-mails sent by each White House official through an RNC e-mail account during each calendar year;

"3. The total number of e-mails received by each White House official through an RNC e-mail account during each calendar year;

"4. The total number of e-mails sent by each White House official through an RNC e-mail account to a '.gov' e-mail account during each calendar year; and

"5. The total number of e-mails received by each White House official through an RNC e-mail account from a '.gov' e-mail account during each calendar year."

Rove Watch

Is the pressure getting to Karl Rove?

Rove gave a speech to a Republican group in Ohio yesterday in which he reportedly blamed 9/11 on Democrats, and the war in Iraq on bin Laden. Jim Carney writes in the Akron Beacon Journal: "Presidential confidant Karl Rove painted a bleak picture Wednesday of what would happen if the United States walked away from the global war on terror. . . .

"In a question-and-answer period after his speech, Rove was asked whose idea it was to start a pre-emptive war in Iraq.

"'I think it was Osama bin Laden's,' Rove replied."

But as Carney notes: "Bin Laden was based in Afghanistan when he orchestrated the Sept. 11 attacks on the United States. Bush acknowledged last year that Iraq under Saddam Hussein had nothing to do with 9/11, but the president portrays the Iraq war as the front line of the global war on terror."

Brian Gadd writes in the Coschocton Tribune: "On the general war on terror and in Iraq, Rove called the global threat of terror 'the defining issue of our generation,' and that we're in the present situation due to the 'feeble response' of the Clinton administration and Democrats in general to terrorist attacks on U.S. interests around the world in the years leading up to 9/11."

Thomas J. Sheeran writes for the Associated Press: "Rove told about 400 people at a Tuscarawas County Lincoln Day dinner that the 100-day mark of the Democratic-controlled Congress 'seems like 100 years, doesn't it?'"

Darfur Watch

Michael Abramowitz and Glenn Kessler write in The Washington Post: "President Bush unveiled a new package of sanctions against Sudan yesterday for failing to cooperate with international efforts to end what he described as the 'genocide' in the Darfur region -- but promptly postponed it to give the U.N. secretary general time to pursue a diplomatic solution to the crisis.

"Until Tuesday night, the White House had been planning to use the speech to impose a 'Plan B' for Sudan, a long-anticipated plan that includes new financial sanctions targeting 29 companies owned or controlled by the Sudanese government, as well as three people involved in fomenting violence in Darfur. Bush and his aides have been increasingly frustrated by their inability to prod Sudan to cooperate in efforts to end the humanitarian crisis in the troubled region, where as many as 450,000 people have died and more than 2 million have been made homeless after attacks from government-sponsored militias.

"But the administration plan was upended by a last-minute plea Tuesday from Secretary General Ban Ki Moon to Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, requesting more time to work out a diplomatic solution with Sudan's president, Lt. Gen. Omar Hassan al-Bashir. . . .

"Bush's speech, timed for the week in which the country commemorates the Holocaust, was his most extensive discussion of the conflict in Darfur in nearly a year. It came while the president faces increasing pressure from lawmakers and humanitarian groups to deliver on promises to press Bashir to end his conflict with the rebels in Darfur and alleviate the suffering."

Sheryl Gay Stolberg writes in the New York Times: "Some of the advocates for peace in Darfur, who have long criticized the administration for inaction, expressed severe disappointment that he did not take stronger action. Still, some said the specter of the president laying out a specific plan for sanctions against Sudan to an audience of Holocaust survivors -- including Elie Wiesel, an author and Nobel Peace Prize winner -- signaled a new level of intensity."

He Just Knows

A revealing exchange at yesterday's press briefing with Dana Perino:

"Q In his speech on Monday, the President said, 'Families gathered here understand that our troops want to finish the job.' What evidence does he actually have for that? Because there doesn't seem to be any polling data whatsoever to support the idea that the troops do want to stay and finish the job rather than go home.

" MS. PERINO: Victoria, I think that there are many troops and there are many families, and the President hears it personally from them, asking to make sure that the President stays strong and completes the mission.

" Q The only polling data there seems to be is an Army Times poll that came out last December, which seems to show, really, that the doubts are whether the troops actually feel that they could finish the job and whether they wanted to finish it.

" MS. PERINO: I'm not familiar with that poll. I do know that the President feels confident that when he describes what he hears from the troops, that he's being as forthcoming as he can with the American people. And you just have to -- I think that a lot of it could be anecdotal, but I'm not a polling expert and we don't, as you know, make decisions based on polls.

" Q So this isn't based on any empirical data; this is based on people he's spoken with?

" MS. PERINO: I think people he's spoken with, generals he hears from that are over there on the ground, people that he talks to. I mean, he talks to many outside experts. Yes, I think that he feels very comfortable that the troops, families of the troops believe that this mission should be completed."

Bush's Day

Bush today travels to Tipp City, Ohio, to deliver a speech on the war on terror.

The Associated Press reports: "A contractor in Tipp City, Ohio, faxed the White House a couple of weeks ago to invite President Bush to come speak, and was flabbergasted when the White House faxed back, accepting. . . .

"Steve Bruns is former head of the Tipp City Area Chamber of Commerce and is a Bush backer. He says he wanted the president to explain why the 'fight against the terrorists and victory in Iraq are so important.'

"White House spokesman Alex Conant says it's a 'good opportunity to visit Ohio and talk about the war.'"

Nancy Bowman writes in the Dayton Daily News that although the speech is being held at Tippecanoe High School, the audience will be made up of about 500 people invited by the chamber of commerce.

"Most students at Tippecanoe High School will watch the speech via a simulcast. Around 40 advanced government class students have been invited to attend.

"Schools Superintendent John Kronour said school representatives have been meeting with those planning the event, but said planning is being done by The White House staff, not the schools. School officials have heard complaints about the event not being open to more students."

In a separate story, Bowman writes that "Chamber executive Matt Owen said the chamber was working with the president's staff to incorporate local people and experiences in the president's speech."

Mike Kelly writes in the Trip City Herald that Mike McDermott, chairman of the board of directors for the Tipp City Area Chamber of Commerce, said invitations went out to "'a real mixture of folks from the entire Miami Valley.' He said a lot of Bush's political supporters, chamber members, county officials and business supporters have been invited to the event.

"Although McDermott said he does not know how the event is being moderated, he believes President Bush will open up to questions.

"'I believe it is just going to be a speech,' McDermott said. 'But, one of the things that is very unique about this president is he is very willing to go out into the crowd and answer questions and connect with his constituents.'"

On Friday, Bush uses yet another midwest high school as a backdrop. Mark Hornbeck and Deb Price write in the Detroit News: "President Bush will deliver a policy address on the war in Iraq and the global battle against terrorism on Friday afternoon at East Grand Rapids High School.

"The speech, to be hosted by the World Affairs Council of Western Michigan, is scheduled to begin at 1 p.m. at the high school Performing Arts Center. . . .

"White House spokesman Alex Conant said Bush will tell the audience that 'the consequences of failure in Iraq would be death and destruction in the Middle East and here in America.'"

Al Jazeera Revisited

Luke Baker reports for Reuters: "The trial began yesterday for two men accused of leaking a secret memo on the Iraq war in which U.S. President George W. Bush is reported to have threatened to bomb TV station Al Jazeera.

"Prosecutors told the court the Britons, a civil servant and a political researcher, leaked the memo detailing 'highly sensitive' talks between Bush and British Prime Minister Tony Blair at the White House on April 16, 2004, because they opposed the Iraq war.

"Britain's Daily Mirror reported in November 2005 that the memo quoted Bush as saying he wanted to bomb Al Jazeera, the Qatar-based satellite broadcaster whose coverage of the Iraq war has angered U.S. officials.

"The Mirror quoted an unnamed government official as suggesting Bush's threat was a joke but cited another unidentified source as saying Bush was serious. It said Blair had talked Bush out of the idea.

"The White House has described the Mirror report as 'outlandish' and Blair's spokesman last year denied allegations about the contents of the memo."

But as I wrote in my December 2, 2005 column, the White House has never provided a straight answer to this question: Did President Bush raise the idea of bombing the headquarters of the al-Jazeera television network with Blair that day -- and if so, was he serious or was he joking?

Crackberry Watch

Ken Herman blogs for Cox News Service: "The Blackberry system breakdown that knocked many of the devices off the air took its toll at the White House.

"'We're 14 hours into no Blackberrys,' said spokesman Tony Fratto. 'So you can imagine how things are.'

"'We've already started a 12-step group,' he joked."

Cartoon Watch

Ben Sargent and Pat Oliphant on Gonzales; John Sherffius on what do with Karl Rove.

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