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Bush's Inexplicable Confidence

By Dan Froomkin
Special to washingtonpost.com
Tuesday, April 24, 2007; 1:38 PM

White House aides are quietly telling reporters they now think Attorney General Alberto Gonzales can ride out the still-raging controversy over last year's purge of U.S. attorneys.

That's their explanation for President Bush's otherwise inexplicable assertion yesterday morning that Gonzales's feeble stonewalling in a congressional hearing last week actually increased his confidence in the attorney general's ability to do his job.

But does the White House really think this scandal will pass?

More likely, Bush and his aides are stalling for time, hoping to keep the public in the dark about what really prompted the prosecutor purge for as long as possible, taking some pleasure in befuddling congressional investigators -- and letting Gonzales's limp corpse take fire that might otherwise be aimed at the White House directly.

The Coverage

Michael Abramowitz writes in The Washington Post: "President Bush said his confidence in Alberto R. Gonzales has grown as a result of the attorney general's testimony last week before the Senate Judiciary Committee, as the administration moved to end speculation that Gonzales would step down after a performance criticized by senators in both parties. . . .

"Soon after Bush spoke, Gonzales said he has no plans to resign. 'I will stay as long as I feel I can be effective,' the attorney general said at a news conference called to discuss identity theft. 'And I believe I can be effective.'

"Taken together, White House advisers and consultants said, the comments suggested that the president intends to ride out the storm despite qualms among Republican lawmakers and even some of his own aides. . . .

"[T]he White House appears to have concluded that Gonzales has done nothing to merit firing -- and that letting him go would only create more political problems for the administration. Bush also seems to be digging in against the proposition that his appointments can be dictated from Capitol Hill."

Jim Rutenberg and Neil A. Lewis write in the New York Times: "One senior Republican Congressional aide at work in Washington on Monday, who requested anonymity to speak candidly, called Mr. Bush's statement that his confidence in Mr. Gonzales had grown after his testimony 'curious'; another senior Republican aide asked, 'Was he watching the same hearing as everyone else?'"

But here's the (official) explanation: "Dan Bartlett, the White House counselor, said in an interview that as far as the White House was concerned, the public was not paying much attention to the debate over Mr. Gonzales and that there was 'a disconnect' between what he termed Washington's fascination with the issue and the public's interest in it.

"'There's no traction with the public because there is no serious allegation of wrongdoing,' Mr. Bartlett said.

"And, if Mr. Gonzales were to step down, officials argued, it would wrongly lead the public to conclude that he had done something wrong."

Bret Baier reports for Fox News: "Privately, White House and Justice officials predict the worst may be over now that the attorney general's testimony has come and gone with no evidence of wrongdoing found yet."

But consider some alternate explanations for Bush's stubborn backing of his old friend:

Maura Reynolds and Richard B. Schmitt write in the Los Angeles Times: "In an administration that prizes fidelity, Gonzales is known as among the most loyal of the loyal. That may be a key reason Bush is backing him so strongly when his support elsewhere has ebbed.

"'The president has fewer and fewer friends in this town, and Gonzales is one of them,' said Thomas E. Mann, who studies Congress and the presidency at the Brookings Institution think tank.

"Mann also said Bush is famously reluctant to admit mistakes, and nudging Gonzales toward the door would effectively be an admission of error.

"'It would go to one of the fundamental critiques of the Bush administration -- that their long-term political ambitions were so great that it led to more than the normal politicization of the process of government,' Mann said.

"Stanley N. Katz, a legal historian at Princeton University, said Bush may be worried that if critics got Gonzales' scalp, they would go after more -- particularly, chief White House political advisor Karl Rove.

"'If [critics] keep firing at a dead man, various other people are probably going to survive,' Katz said. 'I think they must be worried about blood lust . . . [that] Rove will be next.'"

Peter S. Canellos writes in his Boston Globe column that "the administration's willingness to withstand its own party's disdain for Gonzales probably springs not from loyalty but from self-interest: The last thing the president needs right now is confirmation hearings for a new attorney general.

"It's well known that the administration is seeking to maximize its own powers. This effort takes many forms, from asserting the right to bypass laws that Bush himself has signed, to asserting the authority to hold prisoners without trials, to forbidding Congress from seeing information the administration deems sensitive to national security, to asserting its own, highly debatable interpretations of the Geneva Conventions.

"There may well be other, similar claims of power that the public does not know about, leading to secret actions that the president believes are justified through his authority as commander in chief."

Could Bush easily find another attorney general as amenable as Gonzales -- and get him confirmed? Not likely.

And then there's always the possibility that this is just a dodge. As Holly Rosenkrantz and Joe Sobczyk write for Bloomberg: "In the Bush administration, such presidential declarations of support have often been a sign of trouble -- in many cases preceding an embattled official's ouster by weeks or even days -- showing there are limits to the loyalty the president has made a hallmark of his management style."

The Washington Post editorial board asks: "The president had acknowledged that Mr. Gonzales had work to do to repair his credibility with lawmakers. Does it not matter that he failed to do so? . . .

"In the meantime, the focus on Mr. Gonzales is obscuring the need for more information about the firings, especially of Mr. Iglesias, including evidence from the White House officials involved."

The Chicago Tribune editorial board issues a call for Gonzales to resign: "It's not yet clear whether unsavory political motives played a role in the dismissals. The Judiciary Committee hopes to get testimony from White House senior adviser Karl Rove and former White House counsel Harriet Miers to help resolve that important question.

"But whether the decisions originated in the White House or the Justice Department, it is clear that Gonzales was largely a figurehead. When the important responsibilities of his office were being discharged, he was effectively absent.

"In apologizing to the eight U.S. attorneys, he said, 'They deserved better from me.' They did, and the American people deserve someone better as attorney general."

Another Special Counsel Enters the Picture

Scott Higham and Robert O'Harrow Jr. write in The Washington Post: "The U.S. Office of Special Counsel is expanding its investigation of a January videoconference, conducted by Karl Rove's deputy for General Services Administration appointees, to look at whether the political dealings of the White House have violated the Hatch Act, its chairman said last night.

"Not long into its investigation of the presentation, Special Counsel Scott J. Bloch said, his office had collected 'a sufficient amount of evidence' that merited a deeper examination of whether the White House was running afoul of the law."

Tom Hamburger writes in the Los Angeles Times: "Most of the time, an obscure federal investigative unit known as the Office of Special Counsel confines itself to monitoring the activities of relatively low-level government employees, stepping in with reprimands and other routine administrative actions for such offenses as discriminating against military personnel or engaging in prohibited political activities.

"But the Office of Special Counsel is preparing to jump into one of the most sensitive and potentially explosive issues in Washington, launching a broad investigation into key elements of the White House political operations that for more than six years have been headed by chief strategist Karl Rove.

"The new investigation, which will examine the firing of at least one U.S. attorney, missing White House e-mails, and White House efforts to keep presidential appointees attuned to Republican political priorities, could create a substantial new problem for the Bush White House. . . .

"The decision by Bloch's office is the latest evidence that Rove's once-vaunted operations inside the government, which helped the GOP hold the White House and Congress for six years, now threaten to mire the administration in investigations. . . .

"All administrations are political, but this White House has systematically brought electoral concerns to Cabinet agencies in a way unseen previously. . . .

"'This is a big deal,' Paul C. Light, a New York University expert on the executive branch, said of Bloch's plan. 'It is a significant moment for the administration and Karl Rove. It speaks to the growing sense that there is a nexus at the White House that explains what's going on in these disparate investigations.'"

Interestingly enough, Daniel Pulliam wrote in a 2005 Government Executive story about accusations of political bias not from but against Bloch.

Waxman Watch

Stephanie Kirchgaessner writes in the Financial Times: "The White House was yesterday accused by a senior Democratic congressman of systematically ignoring security breaches and violations involving classified material, including leaving 'sensitive' classified information unattended in a hotel room. . . .

"Mr Waxman's inquiry into White House security policies followed a hearing last month in which James Knodell, chief security officer at the White House, said his office had never conducted an internal investigation to identify who leaked the name of Valerie Plame, a former covert CIA agent, to several reporters. . . .

"Mr Waxman said security officers told the House committee they were prohibited from conducting unannounced inspections of the White House's West Wing. The unnamed officials told Mr Waxman that, while security specialists had access to the West Wing during the Clinton administration, access was revoked by the Bush administration.

"In one case, an unnamed senior White House official instructed the security office to block inspection of the West Wing by officers of the Information Security Oversight office, which has authority to conduct inspections of all executive offices."

Here's the Waxman letter.

Hypocrisy Watch

President Bush made another pitch for his war plans on the South Lawn today. One of the many talking points he repeated was that politicians shouldn't overrule military commanders.

"To accept the bill proposed by the Democratic leadership would be to accept a policy that directly contradicts the judgment of our military commanders," he said today.

But moments later Bush took credit for spearheading a policy change that did precisely that. "Last November, the American people said they were frustrated and wanted a change in our strategy in Iraq. I listened," he said.

As it happens, however, Bush's "surge" plan was neither what the voters said they wanted -- nor what his commanders wanted. Bush overruled and then replaced his command structure, installing a team that supported his plan. See, for instance, this January Washington Post story.

This hypocrisy is not new -- but it would be nice if reporters noted it more often, rather than just quoting Bush without context.

War of Words Heats Up

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid stepped up his verbal assault on the president yesterday. Here's the text of his speech.

Reid said that "the President on Friday used the word 'progress' no fewer than ten times when he gave his Iraq update.

"He said that while there were still horrific attacks in Baghdad - and I quote - 'The direction of the fight is beginning to shift.' In describing his escalation of American troops - what he calls a surge - he said, 'so far the operation is meeting expectations.'

"The White House transcript says the President made those remarks in the State of Michigan. I believe he made them in the state of denial.

"These are the facts on the ground, the hard truths facing our heroic troops on the front lines:

"-- American casualties are increasing, not decreasing. . . .

"-- Untold thousands of Iraqi civilians have died, while over two million more have fled the country as refugees.

"-- The President used to talk a lot about establishing benchmarks for the Iraqi government. Yet despite our surge in troops and spending, they have failed to take meaningful steps toward achieving them.

"-- Militias have not been disbanded and continue to cause terror. And now the Iraqi government itself, once the Bush Administration's greatest pride, stands on the brink of chaos."

His list goes on.

"It has now been three months, and despite the President's happy talk, no progress has been made. The time for patience is long past," Reid said. "No more will Congress turn a blind eye to the Bush Administration's incompetence and dishonesty."

White House spokeswoman Dana Perino shot back at yesterday's press briefing: "One thing that concerned me today is I heard that Senator Reid said that the President is in denial about the war. And I think that any quick glance in the mirror would show him that he's in denial on several things -- that Senator Reid is.

"First of all, he's in denial about the enemy that we face. This is a vicious and brutal enemy that wants to kill innocent men, women and children of Iraq, people who enjoy and love freedom, and that includes Americans. So it's not in our long-term national security interests in order to not deal with this enemy now.

"Secondly, he's in denial about the conflict that we are in, how al Qaeda is inciting sectarian violence. He is in denial about the new Baghdad security plan and the new changes that we've implemented in al Anbar province. He's also in denial that a surrender date he thinks is a good idea. It is not a good idea. It is defeat. It is a death sentence for the millions of Iraqis who voted for a constitution, who voted for a government, who voted for a free and democratic society."

But it turns out that Bush yesterday may have been hearing some of the grim realities Reid was talking about from his new crop of senior commanders as well.

From ABC News last night, Charlie Gibson: "Martha, this war of words between the Congress, Democratic leadership in Congress, and the President that going on for some time now. The President is expected to get the money he wants to support the troops, but he was briefed today by his military leaders on what's actually going on, on the ground in Iraq. What were they telling him?"

Martha Raddatz: "Well, I think there is serious concern about the security and the political situation there, Charlie. I think, in the coming weeks, you will see the administration lower the bar, redefining success, in a way. I know the President has tried to do this sporadically in the past, but they wanna come up with what is an acceptable level of violence. Because there's great concern, especially about those car bombings last week and the progress that the prime minister in Iraq has made, which is not a lot."

The Bill

Jonathan Weisman and Elizabeth Williamson write in The Washington Post: "House and Senate negotiators reached agreement yesterday on war-funding legislation that would begin bringing U.S. troops home from Iraq as early as July, setting a goal of ending U.S. combat operations by no later than March.

"The $124 billion bill, slated for final votes in the House and Senate tomorrow and Thursday, sets up a veto clash with President Bush by week's end. Some congressional Democrats had considered making advisory all dates for withdrawing U.S. troops in the hopes of persuading Bush to sign the bill, which Democratic leaders said provides $96 billion -- more than the White House requested -- for the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. But with the president standing firm on his plans to veto any language on the timing of the war, Democratic leaders stuck to binding ates for initial troop pullouts. . . .

"The bill also establishes benchmarks for the Iraqi government to meet, including the creation of a program to disarm militias. The benchmarks also require reductions in sectarian violence, the easing of rules that purged the government of all former Baath Party members, and passage of an oil-revenue-sharing law.

"Unless the Bush administration determines by July 1 that those benchmarks are being met, troops would begin coming home immediately, with a goal of completing those withdrawals by the end of the year. If benchmarks are being met, troops would begin coming home no later than Oct. 1, with a goal of completing the troop pullout by April 1."


From Perino's briefing:

"Q Can you talk about -- you talked about the fact that you won't leave the Iraqis 'flailing and defenseless,' as you say. And, yet, the President repeatedly says, and everybody from the administration, that this is not an open-ended commitment. So at some point are you willing to leave them? If they don't come along and the Iraqi government doesn't do what you want it to do, what's required -- are you willing to leave them at that point?

"MS. PERINO: I think that the President is confident that Prime Minister Maliki understands that the Iraqi people have limited patience, as well, and they are desperate for the security and to get their lives back to what they were before."

Back to what their lives were before? As in, before the invasion?

Later in the briefing, a reporter read that back to her.

"MS. PERINO: Well, obviously that's -- I should -- let me -- are you giving me a chance to expand, revise and extend my remarks? Obviously, they want to be in a time -- in a place where they can feel safe, and I don't believe that, at least most of the population, felt safe under Saddam Hussein."

David Halberstam, RIP

Martin Weil and Yvonne Shinhoster Lamb write in The Washington Post: "David Halberstam, a dogged reporter who was regarded as among the leading journalists of his era and whose Pulitzer Prize-winning coverage of the war in Vietnam was credited with helping change the nation's view of that conflict, died yesterday in California. He was 73. . . .

"Often describing himself as one who began as a supporter of his nation's involvement in the war, Halberstam grew skeptical of official accounts. He placed a premium on seeing for himself and went, he said, 'to the boondocks, to isolated posts, to strategic hamlets.'

"With a handful of other American reporters, he became known for sending back dispatches that often varied sharply from the government's optimistic versions. His accounts troubled many readers and proved a severe irritant to the White House.

"His work ultimately prompted a suggestion that he be recalled. He was not, and he shared the Pulitzer Prize for International Reporting in 1964.

"Later, Halberstam wrote a best-selling book about the war and how it was conceived and directed. 'The Best and the Brightest,' which appeared in 1972, is often regarded as a landmark in turning many against the war.

"In the book, with its overriding mood of folly and tragedy, Halberstam offered vivid descriptions of personality and incident in the account of how good intentions went astray."

Clyde Haberman writes in the New York Times: "His reporting, along with that of several colleagues, left little doubt that a corrupt South Vietnamese government supported by the United States was no match for Communist guerrillas and their North Vietnamese allies. His dispatches infuriated American military commanders and policy makers in Washington, but they accurately reflected the realities on the ground. . . .

"William Prochnau, who wrote a book on the reporting of that period, 'Once Upon a Distant War,' said last night that Mr. Halberstam and other American journalists then in Vietnam were incorrectly regarded by many as antiwar.

"'He was not antiwar,' Mr. Prochnau said. . . . It was simply a case, he said, of American commanders lying to the press about what was happening in Vietnam. 'They were shut out and they were lied to,' Mr. Prochnau said. And Mr. Halberstam 'didn't say, "You're not telling me the truth." He said, "You're lying." He didn't mince words.'

Gleen Greenwald blogs for Salon: "The functions Halberstam and the best journalists of his generation fulfilled are exactly those that have been so fundamentally abandoned, repudiated and scorned by our nation's most prominent and influential media stars."

McGovern Fires Back

A pugnacious George McGovern fires back at Vice President Cheney in a Los Angeles Times op-ed. In an April 11 speech, Cheney attacked McGovern's 1972 presidential platform and contended that today's Democratic Party has reverted to those views.

Writes McGovern: Cheney "said that the McGovern way is to surrender in Iraq and leave the U.S. exposed to new dangers. The truth is that I oppose the Iraq war, just as I opposed the Vietnam War, because these two conflicts have weakened the U.S. and diminished our standing in the world and our national security.

"In the war of my youth, World War II, I volunteered for military service at the age of 19 and flew 35 combat missions, winning the Distinguished Flying Cross as the pilot of a B-24 bomber. By contrast, in the war of his youth, the Vietnam War, Cheney got five deferments and has never seen a day of combat -- a record matched by President Bush. . . .

"It is my firm belief that the Cheney-Bush team has committed offenses that are worse than those that drove Nixon, Vice President Spiro Agnew and Atty. Gen. John Mitchell from office after 1972. Indeed, as their repeated violations of the Constitution and federal statutes, as well as their repudiation of international law, come under increased consideration, I expect to see Cheney and Bush forced to resign their offices before 2008 is over."

Meet Dana Perino

Jon Ward profiles Dana Perino in the Washington Times and cites as an example of her "Wild West toughness" a "recent exchange with Helen Thomas, who has covered every presidency since she followed the Kennedy campaign to Washington. When Miss Thomas, 86, kept firing questions at Mrs. Perino, 34, the presidential spokeswoman cut her off.

"'Do you want me to answer the question, Helen, or do you want to ask questions? It's really hard to concentrate here. What's your question?' Mrs. Perino demanded.

"Miss Thomas replied, 'You repeat yourself so much that. . . . '

"'So do you,' Mrs. Perino interrupted, then immediately called on another reporter. . . .

"Mrs. Perino is 'the first press secretary to cut Helen Thomas no slack,' said Ann Compton of ABC News, who has spent more than three decades as a White House correspondent. . . .

"Mrs. Perino said in an interview that she felt bad about the exchange."

Live Online

I'll be Live Online tomorrow at 1 p.m. ET. Come join the conversation.

Just Like Lincoln?

Kevin Freking writes for the Associated Press: "President Bush empathized with Abraham Lincoln on Monday, saying they both stood by their principles in the face of criticism during wartime.

"The president took seniors and advocacy group leaders on a tour of the Oval Office after a meeting on Medicare's drug benefit. . . .

"Bush told the group there is great pressure in Washington to change principles for the sake of political popularity, but he said he would not.

"'It's a struggle for some. It's not for me,' he said.

"He showed the group a portrait of Abraham Lincoln. He said Lincoln was unpopular during the Civil War but maintained his belief that all men are created equal.

"'Look what would have happened to history' if Lincoln had abandoned that principle, Bush said."

Bush Fatigue

Here's the first president Bush talking with Larry King last night on CNN:

"KING: A couple of other quick things... Earlier this month, GOP presidential hopeful Mitt Romney praised your son Jeb as quite a guy and he said if his name wasn't Bush, he would be running for president.

"What do you think of that?

"G. BUSH: There's something to that. There might be a little Bush fatigue now."

Jon Stewart Watch

Jon Stewart and John Oliver discuss Bush's rave review of Gonzales's performance:

Stewart: "Doesn't the president want us to feel that the people that he hires are competent?"

Oliver: "No, no, absolutely not, no. . . . He wants you, and the American people, to leave him the [bleep] alone."

Stewart: "You're suggesting right here that the president would rather have us believe he is surrounded by bumbling idiots than reveal anything, even Constitutionally mandated, about the inner workings of the administration?"

Oliver: "That is correct."

Stewart: "He's that fragile."

Oliver: "Absolutely."

And here is Stewart interviewing former Time magazine reporter Matthew Cooper. Stewart is appropriately incredulous. Some excerpts:

Stewart: "You would have gone to jail for Karl Rove. You know Karl Rove would have sent you to the Gulag given the chance -- even if he felt you had done nothing wrong."

Cooper: "He may yet send me."

Stewart: "Have you ever have a conversation with him, did you say, 'Karl, they're going to send me to jail here, buddy.'"

Cooper: "We talked about other things, but not about that."

Stewart: "Does the press understand that the administration works every day to discredit them, and throw them off scents?"

Cooper: "You would think. . . . "

Stewart: "Do people get seduced? By the idea that 'Oh my god Karl Rove's on the phone and even though he's saying Pelosi's a lesbian and it's on super-secret probation' . . . then you go, like, 'But it's Karl Rove, and I want to talk to him again!'"

Cooper: "Right, no, I think there is a lot of that."

Cartoon Watch

Tom Toles on timetables; Bill Mitchell and John Sherffius on Bush and Gonzales.

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